American Merchant Lines - & their Five Banker Class Ships

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Please Note: All ssMaritime and other related maritime sites are 100% non-commercial and privately owned, thus ssmaritime is NOT associated with any shipping company or any other organisation! Although the author has worked and been involved in the passenger shipping industry for well over 60 years, but due to his old age and poor health, he was forced to retire. Yet, he has completed well over 1,360 Classic Liners, Passenger-Cargo Liners as well as humble converted C3 converted Migrant Liners, which has transported countless thousands folk to the new world, as well on vacations’. I trust the features online will continue to provide Classic Liner and Ship enthusiasts both the information they are seeking, but more so provide a great deal of pleasure and relive many happy memories!

 

A fine painting of the S.S. American Banker and her four sisters

The above was sourced from a company postcard & was provided by Jonathan Villiers (Warwickshire - UK)

 

Please Note: Postcards, photographs & other images are either from the author’s private collection, unless stated otherwise.

A special thank to the ssmaritime supporters for their very kind assistance. 

A short History of the “American Merchant Lines”:

In the autumn (fall) of 1923, the Shipping Board disposed of a good number of “United States Lines” vessels, including some being sold to the “Dollar Line”. To replace these, the Shipping Board acquired five transport ships from the “Army Transport Service” and they were reconditioned and when completed they were placed in the service of the “American Merchant Lines” (AML) under the management of “J. H. Winchester and Company”.

Please Note: I have a Passenger List of the S.S. American Merchant dated August 23, 1928 sailing from New York to London further down the page.

The official “American Merchant Lines” (AML) logo

Introduction to the American Banker Class of Ships:

These five ships became known as the “American Banker class of ships”, but as I mentioned above they commenced their days as simple “Hog Island” Army Troopships in 1920 and 1921.

Five of these ships became the American Banker class ships, and no one would ever argue that these ships were beautiful or luxurious when they became a 12 passenger cargo liner, in fact they were far from being that, as they were the most humble of ships. Yet they proved to be excellent and reliable ships throughout their careers with AML, during a time they served with them during a time that became known as ‘between the wars’ years. However, in 1926 they certainly received an amazing makeover and became greatly improved ships, but I will cover that a little later in the “S.S. American Banker” Story.

S.S. American Merchant

The “American Merchant Lines” (AML) operated them on Trans-Atlantic services between New York, USA, and London, UK. Typically they decided to name each ship commencing with “American” and this was then followed by some well known merchant terms that included “Banker”, “Trader, “Farmer”, “Merchant” and “Shipper”.

These ships would depart every Thursday from Pier 7, at North River New York, on the New York, London, New York service with accommodation for 12 passengers and cargo. Pier 7 was located suitably close to Pennsylvania Railroad and Grand Central Stations at the Foot of 18th Street.

Whilst at the Royal Albert Docks in London, passengers would be met by busses as well as covered trucks to transport their baggage to the “Hearns Bus Station” at Gray’s Inn Road, London central. There the luggage would be sorted and collected by the passengers. And of course those sailing to New York had the same service in reverse to the ship.

With the S.S. American Banker being the lead-in ship, and the only one of the five ships that had a long life, I will feature her story in full below, from her construction, through to her final days having had a number of owners and some six official names.

S.S. American Banker is seen on her port side

Provided by Jonathan Villiers (UK) who finds “these American ships so interesting”

American Banker’s list of names:

Launched in 1919 as the (1) USAT Cantigny. In 1924, she was renamed (2) “American Banker” and placed in service with “American Merchant Lines” (AML). Later names were; (3) “Ville d’ Anvers” (1940). (4) “City of Athens” (1946). (5) “Protea” (1947). (6) “Arosa Kulm” (1952). She was broken up in 1959.

Here we see the first of the five, USAT Cantigny, which in 1924 be came the S.S. America Banker

 

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S.S. American Banker Story:

Construction of this ship commenced in 1919 by the “American International Shipbuilding Corporation” at Hog Island, Pennsylvania, USA.

Hull 690 was one of hundreds typical Type “B” class ships built. For Interest the B Class ships were the forerunners of the well known C3 class and Victory ships built by the hundreds during and after WW2 many of which were later sold and converted into either very humble migrant ships or extensively rebuilt into fine passenger liners and cruise ships.

Although she was laid down as the “Shohola”, but when she was launched on October 27, 1919 she was officially named “Cantigny”, and she was delivered to the US Army in August 1920.

The USAT Cantigny had a tonnage of 7,463 GRT (Gross Registered Tons) and like all of her class; visually she had no sheer whatsoever, and had one slender upright funnel, two masts. She was powered by steam turbine engines that powered a single screw that saw her sail at a cruising speed of 15 knots (See Specifications at the bottom of the page for the full details. She operated as a traditional USAT - (United States Army Troopship) until 1924.

With her trooper career over, she, and four of her identical sisters were transferred to the “American Merchant Line” (AML) in 1924 and the “Cantigny” was renamed “American Banker” and she was given a refit providing her with accommodation for 12 passengers in a somewhat modest One Class service.

On April 24, 1924, S.S. American Banker departed on her maiden voyage from New York, sailing to London and return to New York. Although, the simple style of these ships, remarkably she and her sisters proved to be rather popular, as travellers enjoyed the idea of sailing in an intimate style of ship.

A starboard view of the 12 passenger S.S. American Banker having just departed New York

Thus after two years of operation AML decided that these five ships would be given a dramatic makeover. In 1926 the American Banker, as well as her sisters (over a short period of time) were all given a huge transformation, by a designer who was none other than a man who would become the world famous William Francis Gibbs, who would be the designer of the S.S. America (1939), and the super magnificent S.S. United States (1951). He created new public facilities, a Main Lounge and Smoking Room, and a full width Dining Room and accommodations for 80 passengers in an intimate all new more stylish Tourist Class configuration.

Especially after their transformation, those who loved an ocean voyage and preferred a Trans-Atlantic crossing with a genuine nautical atmosphere, these five traditional American Banker class ships of the “American Merchant Lines” offered the perfect setting for a voyage to the UK or the USA during the 1920 and 1930’s. Below is her post 1926 Deck Plan.

The deck plan below reveals the ships three passenger decks; Boat/Sports Deck was there were two guest Staterooms. Promenade Deck which contained a country club like Main Lounge and Smoking Room located on the starboard side, a Bar was added since America finally lifted prohibition. Also on Promenade Deck were the majority of accommodations, as well as a covered wrap around Promenade Deck. Then forward on A Deck was the location of the Dining Room, the Purser’s Office, Chief Steward, and the Surgeon’s Office.

Deck Plan:

Stateroom 1, 3 and 4 located forward on Promenade Deck had had private facilities with a washbasin, bath with an overhead shower, a WC. Whist Cabins 22, 23, and cabin 28 being the only inside cabin on board, had private facilities with a washbasin, a shower and a WC.

During 1930, AML offered New York to London weekly services on their five popular AML ships for just US$100.

Then in 1931 the American Banker and her four sisters were absorbed into the “United States Line” and on November 6, 1931, the American Banker commenced her first sailing from New York to both Plymouth and London for the company. She was followed by her sisters American Farmer, Trader and Merchant, whilst the American Shipper was placed on a new service, being New York to Hamburg, sailing via Plymouth and Le Havre, however, all these ships remained managed and operated under the “American Merchant Lines” name.

American Banker Class Ships - Photo Album

Boat Deck:

Boat Deck offered a huge Sports Deck, ensuring there was ample of space for everyone on board to enjoy their favourite seagoing games, be it; deck tennis, shuffleboard, quoits, even golf, etc. And aft of the Captains quarters, there were two 2-Berth Staterooms with three portholes on two sides, with a wash basin in the room, and the other facilities being one deck down on Promenade Deck.

As the photographs below have been sourced from brochures I have, they have obviously been in a folded state for many years, thus the fold markings, I have attempted to make rather poor images look as good as possible, but some are not as I like them, but they are the best available. However, they do provide a good idea of these ships after 1926 in and exteriors.

Three views of these ships spacious Sports Decks looking forward

 

 

Promenade Deck:

Public Venues:

These 80 passenger passenger-cargo liners (from 1926) offered a delightful Main Lounge and Smoking Room with a Bar designed by William Francis Gibbs, and they were located aft on Promenade Deck. The lounge also offered writing desks, and ample lounges and deep comfortable chairs make it the perfect place to spend time with fellow passengers, or just to read a good book.

 

Above & below: The ships Lounge with its starboard side small Smoking Room

 

On the fully covered walk around Promenade Deck there were ample Deck chairs and side tables perfect for relaxing and enjoying those ocean views, and enjoying a cup of morning bouillon and that afternoon cup of tea or coffee course, which can also be had in the Lounge of course.

Here we see part of the delightful Main Foyer forward on Promenade Deck.

The stairs go down to A Deck and the Dining Room, as well as the Pursers Office and the Surgery

The Main Foyer had been carefully and beautifully furnished, featuring deep upholstered lounges that made it a favourite meeting place to plan the day’s program, be it of sports, cards or any of the other activities available. Passengers enjoyed sitting here and have some time chatting with fellow passengers.

Staterooms:

All except one stateroom were outside rooms that offered both light during the day and fresh air, as the portholes opened. There was one interior Stateroom, but all rooms had modern ventilating systems and electric fans installed ensuring ample of clean, fresh air. Three luxury Staterooms located forward on Promenade Deck, Numbers 1, 3 and 4 had a full bath room, with a bath, wash basin and a WC, whilst Outside Staterooms 22 and 23, and inside room 28 had Private facilities with a shower, wash basin and a WC. All other Staterooms had excellent high standard spotless bath and WC facilities available. As I stated earlier, Staterooms 29 and 30 were located up on Boat Deck and they had a wash basin in the room, and used the bath and WC facilities down on Promenade Deck.

Two berth cabin with portholes and a door as it had a connecting room for families if required

 

This Two Berth Cabin also had a fold away Sofa Bed for a third guest

 

Here are some other options of staterooms on board 

A Deck:

The Dining Room was located far forward on A Deck, this photo is looking aft

The Dining Room, located far forward on A Deck had many port holes on both sides of the ship and forward, making it a bright room during the day. And the cuisine was prepared by the best American chefs featuring the best roasts and a wide range of dishes, and of course for breakfast Ham and eggs and all that is good to start a new day! Main Meal times are announced with a traditional bugle call, which meant that it was time to satisfy a ravenous sea-appetite. The ship was fitted with the finest modern refrigerating plants, assuring 100% fresh food throughout the voyage.

Besides the excellent food on these intimate ships, guests were ensured of excellent service as Dining Room stewards always seemed to remember all those things their guests liked best and just how they liked them done!

 

Above & below: S.S. American Banker farewell Dinner Menu, June 25, 1932

 

 

S.S. American Banker Breakfast Menu

S.S. American Banker Story Continues: 

S.S. American Banker is seen in dry-dock for one of her regular hull maintenance and repainting

 

A British advertisement for the four ships operating on the New York, London, New York Service

Having been with the “United States Lines” for some eight years, it was on October 8, 1939 that the American Banker departed New York for her final return voyage to London, departing London on October 25, and returning to New York on November 4, 1939. After her passengers had disembarked and the cargo had been offloaded, she was laid up and in due course was she and her four sisters ended up in the Belgian service.

In 1940 the “American Banker” was transferred to the especially created Belgian company, “Societe Maritime Anversoise” and she was then registered in Belgium and renamed “Ville d’ Anvers” and on March 9, 1940 she commenced her first voyage from New York to Liverpool. In February 1945 she was returned to the “United States Line”, but as she was no longer required she was laid up and placed on the market.

Then in October 1946 she was sold to “Compańia de Vapores Mediterranea”, and she was given a considerable refit as her accommodation was changed to accommodate to carry 200 One Class passengers. Upon completion she was renamed “City of Athens” and she was chartered to the “Stevenson Line” of Honduras. She departed from New York bound for Istanbul on November 11, 1946.

S.S. City of Athens

She made further voyages on this service, including those on January 23, 1947, and again on April 3, 1947. Then on May 30, 1947, she commenced her last voyage for this company when she sailed from New York for Genoa, Piraeus, and concluded at Baltimore where she arrived on July 12, and was duly laid up and placed on the market.

Then on August 13, 1947 she was sold to the “Panamanian Lines”, who amazingly were the forerunners of the famed “Home Lines” later. She was renamed “Protea” and they sent her to Genoa to be extensively refitted between October 1947 and April 1948 at a shipyard there. Upon completion she was registered as being 8,929 GRT, and she now was able to accommodate a massive 965 passengers in the most humble of conditions.

S.S. Protea is seen in an Australian port

Provided by Lucjan Kowalcyzk

She sailed for the “Panamanian Lines” and later for “Compania de Operaziones Maritima”, Italy, from May 1948 to July 1951, and during this period she made a good number of round voyages to Australia, as well as a voyage from Italy to Brazil, and one from Italy to Central America. Also five voyages from Italy to South America, two Gdynia to Haifa, and several other three Italy to Australia.

 

Above & below: two views of passengers out on Protea’s decks

Sent in by Stephen Grossman, a relative of one of her IRO passengers

 

I located five of S.S. Protea’s seven voyages to Australia, and they were all operated (under charter) by the “International Refugee Organisation” (IRO) who brought countless Displaced Persons from around Europe to Australia after World War II, mostly between 1947 and 1951. On these voyages she carried from 897 to 1,096 passengers, who were accommodated in huge male and female bunk-house accommodations mostly located in holds, which by any standard was disgraceful and the passengers suffered some of the most horrid conditions! But her passengers made the best of it, and when they were permitted out on deck, enjoying fresh air.

A couple pose behind a lifebuoy up on deck

The voyages I located are as follows;

1. Depart Venice Italy, August 21, 1948, arrived in Melbourne, Australia on September 29.

2. Depart Genoa, November 16. 1948 - arrived Melbourne on December 22.

3. Depart Genoa, February 11, 1949 - arrive Fremantle, on March 18.

4. Depart Naples, May 2, 1949 - arrive Sydney on June 6, 1949.

5. Depart Italy, February 15, 1951 - arrive Fremantle on March 21, 1951.

S.S. Protea is seen in Melbourne

Sent in by Stephen Grossman, a relative of one of her IRO passengers

Then in August 1951 she was sold to the “Arosa Line” and she made one round voyage from Marseilles to Indochina and Italy before being chartered to the “Incres Line”. She commenced her first voyage for this company from Havre to Plymouth and St John NB on December 10, 1951, and sailed on her last voyage on December 10, 1951 from Havre to Plymouth, St John NB and Bremen where she arrived on January 4, 1952.

She was then returned to the “Arosa Line” who decided to rename her S.S. Arosa Kulm”.

S.S. Arosa Kulm seen in her early days with Arosa Line

On March 18, 1952, she commenced her first voyage from Bremen to Zeebrugge, Southampton and Halifax. In April 1952 she made her first voyage from Bremen to Quebec and Montreal.

In due course she was again updated and painted all white with her accommodations greatly improved.

Here we see the “Arosa Kulm” looking better than she ever has, almost looking like a cruise ship

Some six years later she made her final voyage that commenced on September 5, 1958 sailing from New York for Bremen. But at that time, the “Arosa Line” experienced financial difficulties and they were soon declared bankrupt and sadly on December 6, 1958, the Arosa Klum was arrested for debt at Plymouth, England by customs officials to satisfy the demands of the creditors. She was duly auctioned off and sold to Belgium breakers in December, 1958, and she was broken up at Ghent in May 7, 1959.

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S.S. American Trader, Farmer, Merchant and Shipper:

As I indicated earlier, due to the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, and the November 1939 “Neutrality Act”, which prohibited all American flag merchant ships from calling at hostile ports. Meant that early in 1940 the “United States Lines” decided to set up a Belgian shipping company named “Societe Maritime Anversoise”, which the Belgium’s had a 60% stake and the American’s  40 % stake. Their five ex AML American Banker class ships as well as three others were all transferred to this new company, and were placed under Belgian registry in Antwerp, and they resumed operation with new French names. Thus below are the four sisters named above and their tragic final moments at sea, as they were all sadly torpedoed by the Germans.

American Trader:

Hull 676 was laid down as “Sitkum”, but launched on April 16, 1920, as the “Marne” and was delivered in December 1920. In 1924, she was renamed “American Trader” and placed in service with AML. In 1940, she became the Belgium S.S. Ville de Hasselt.

Seen here at the USAT Marne troopship

 

S.S. American Trader

The S.S. Ville de Hasselt under the command of Master G. Foy was sailing from Liverpool to New York carrying a general cargo of 850 tons. On August 31, 1940, about 100 miles northwest of Barra Head at 16.01 hours was hit on the port side at hold #6 by one stern torpedo from the German U-Boat U-46 while steaming a non-evasive course at 13.5 knots.

The crew abandoned ship and did so in four lifeboats, but due to the high seas they were quickly separated. Apparently the U-boat was observed to surface, circled the sinking ship to identify her and then left without questioning the crew after the ship sank by the stern. The master and 13 crew members who were in one boat were picked up by the Belgian steam trawler Transport about 12 miles west of St. Kilda the next day and they landed at Stornoway on September 2. The survivors in the remaining lifeboats were picked up by the Icelandic steam trawlers Egill Skallagrímsson and the Hilmir northwest of Barra Head in the morning on September 2. They were en-route with fresh fish to Fleetwood and landed them there later that day. She rests at location 56° 30'N, 13° 00'W.

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Hull 677 was laid down as “Sisseton”, but launched on June 17, 1920 as the “Ourcq”; she was delivered in January 1921. In 1924 she was renamed “American Farmer” and placed in service with AML. In 1940, she became the Belgium S.S. Ville de Liege.

S.S. American Farmer seen in 1939 towards the WW2 years

S.S. Ville de Ličge was under the command of Master C.P. Peterson, and she was on a voyage from New York to Belfast and Liverpool. She was laden with general cargo, including 6,121 tons of steel, wool, wheat as well as bacon. On board were 52 persons, being both passengers and crew.

On April 14 1941, 01.17 hours she was suddenly hit aft by one of two torpedoes fired by the German U-Boat U-52 about 700 miles east of Cape Farewell. Then at 02.10 hours, the ship sank having burned fiercely after having been hit again, this time by a G7a torpedo at 01.30 hours. The master, with nine crew members and two of her passengers were the only survivors. The ship rests at location 59° 50'N, 29° 30'W.

S.S. Ville de Liege

 

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American Merchant:

Hull 675 was laid down as “Sisladobsis”, but launched on June 5, 1920 as the “Aisne”; she was delivered in January 1921. Renamed “American Merchant” in 1924, and placed in service with AML. In 1940, she became the Belgium then “Ville de Namur” in 1940.

A postcard of the S.S. American Merchant

S.S. American Merchant - A Passenger List:

S.S. American Merchant

In 1926 the American Merchant, was given an interior refit by William Francis Gibbs in order for her also to accommodate 80 passengers in an all Tourist Class configuration.

This is a Passenger List of her August 23, 1928 New York to London Voyage, with a total of 78 passengers on board.

Mr. Wm. O. Allen, Mrs. Wm. O. Allen, Master Richard Allen, Miss Eliza. Allen - Miss Marion Cameron, Miss Louise Cameron - Mr. V. H. Carr - Mr. H. A. G. Clark - Miss E. Van Derveer - Mr. Jos. Diggins, Mrs. Jos. Diggins, Mr. Warren Diggins - Miss A. Edwards - Mr. R. M. Ewing, Mrs. R. M. Ewing - Mrs. Robert. F. Fleming - Mr. Robert. F. Fleming - Mr. L. E. P. Foote, Mrs. L. E. P. Foote - Mrs. L. R. Frazeur - Mr. Ed. K. Gaston - Miss Mary F. Giddings - Miss Ruba Gordoff - Mrs. Rosaland Guntz - Mr. T. Horst - Mrs. S. D. Jessup, Miss Annie Jessup - Mr. E. L. Jones - Prof. Jas. Kendall, Miss Alice Kendall, Miss Isabelle Kendall, Mr. James Kendall, Jr., Mrs. James Kendall - Miss Helen Larson - Miss M. L. Law - Miss Ethel Lecount - Miss Sarah H. McClintock - Mr. R. A. McDowell - Mrs. F. W. McGowan, Miss Jacqueline A. McGowan -Miss Janet Mehe - Miss Janet Mehl - Miss Mary O'Neill - Mr. A. Paine - Miss Cecil V. Pearce - Miss M. Z. Pease - Rev. Fred M. Perrill, Mrs. Fred M. Perrill, Mr. Chas. Perrill - Mr. John Pintcher - Miss Gertrude Reeves - Mr. Howard Robinson, Mrs. Howard Robinson - Mr. E. F. Romig - Mr. Leoriard Samuel - Mr. Forbes Sherry - Mr. H. B. Silsbee, Mrs. H. B. Silsbee - Miss C. M. Smith - Miss Hedwig Stalland - Mr. Sidney F. Taliaferri - Mrs. Mabel Toad - Mr. J. R. Tod, Mrs. J. R. Tod - Mr. R. G. Tugwell, Mrs. R. G. Tugwell, Miss Tanis Tugwell, Miss Marcia Tugwell - Prof. Fred Tupper, Mrs. Fred Tupper, Miss Mary Tupper - Mr. R. B. Wallace, Mrs. R. B. Wallace - Miss Louise K. Ward - Mr. Walter M. Wels - Mr. Otto Van Weyk - Miss Mary F. Wise, Miss Wise.

A model of the American Merchant

American Merchant’s Final Day at Sea:

The S.S. Ville de Namur was under the command of Master J. Grymonprez, and in June 1940, she was transporting a cargo of horses from Bordeaux, France to Liverpool, England. Then on June 19, sailing in the Bay of Biscay at 20.05 hours the unescorted ‘Ville de Namur’ was suddenly struck by two torpedoes from the German U-Boat U-52 and she was badly damaged and she went rapidly down and sank within 5 minutes west of La Rochelle to around 125 to 150 m deep at 46°25'N4°35'W. There was a sad loss of 25 of her 79 crew, as well as all the horses being lost. Apparently the U-Boat commander suspected that the ship carried weapons behind large wooden structures he saw up on deck, but of course these were the horses’ stables. The ship rests at location 46° 25'N, 4° 35'W.

 

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American Shipper:

Hull 679 - was laid down as “Skanawono”, launched on July 6 1920 as “Tours” and was delivered in January 1921. Renamed: American Shipper in 1924, then the Ville de Mons” was torpedoed and lost in 1940.

S.S. American Shipper

I am sorry that this photo is so poor, but it is the best available

The S.S. Ville de Mons, being under command of Master P. Robertson was on a voyage from New York to Liverpool and Glasgow, carrying 4,375 tons of cargo that included 1,280 boxes of pears, 648 tons of corn and 536 tons of wheat.

On September 2, 1940, at 16.35 hours, she was suddenly hit by single G7a torpedo from a spread of three torpedoes that were fired by the German U-Boat U-47 just northeast of Rockall. The ships sunk rapidly at 17.01 hours, but thankfully all her crew of 54 was saved. The ship rests at location 58° 20'N, 12° 00'W.

 

She is seen here in her final days as the Belgium ship S.S. Ville de Mons

 

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Specifications & details for each ship are as follows:

Built by:                             American International Shipbuilding Corporation, at Hog Island, Pennsylvania, USA.

Hull N° & delivered:

American Banker:             Hull 670, delivered August 1920.

Original name:                     Shohola, launched as Cantigny.

American Trader:              Hull 677, delivered December 1920.

Original name:                     Sitkum, launched as Marne.

American Farmer:             Hull 676, delivered January 1921.

Original name:                     Sisseton, launched as Ourcq.

American Merchant:          Hull 675, delivered January 1921.

Original name:                     Sisladobsis, launched as Aisne.

American Shipper:            Hull 679, delivered January 1921.

Original name:                     Skanawono, launched as Tours.

All Ships:

Tonnage:                            7,463 GRT.

Length:                               436 ft -136 m.

Breadth:                             58 ft - 17.7 m.

Draught:                             35.7 - 10.9 m.

Engine:                               2 x Steam Turbines DR Geared to a single shaft 1,290 HP.

Engines by:                         General Electric Co. Schenectady, USA.

Boilers:                              6 Babcock & Wilcox boilers, 200 psi Sat.

Generators:                         3 200Kw 120C D.C. Ships Service Generators.

Propeller:                            Single Screw, 6,000shp.

Speed:                               15 knots service speed, 17 maximum.

Passengers:                         12 in 1924, 80 after 1926 refit.

 

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 Remembering the Delightful

American Banker Class Ships

Of the “American Merchant Lines” 

 

A fine artist’s impression of the “Banker Class Ships”

By an unknown artist

 

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“Blue Water Liners sailing to the distant shores.
I watched them come, I watched them go and I watched them die.

 

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