As many of you know, I work in the cruise line industry. In fact, this month marks 21 years. So it came as a bit of a surprise to find a new Sheldon connection to the long history of ocean cruising. Last night, as I often do while relaxing after work, I was following up on a new lead and sourcing out a historical Sheldon by the name of Julia Ann Sheldon (1850-1946) and her husband Marcellus Edgar Wheeler (1850-1927). A couple of years ago I had purchased portraits of the couple on Ebay for our archive and was surprised yesterday when one of our members referenced the Sheldon Museum in Lexington, Nebraska, and I found that the patrons and namesake of that museum were the niece and nephew of Julia.
Although Julia and Marcellus were already in our database, I saw that there was a lot of work to do on them, and so I began to fill in the blanks with census records, birth and death notices, etc. Then I came to something which struck me as peculiar. A ship manifest that appeared to be sailing round-trip from New York City in 1913. Was this a mistake? Up to this point we had long had luxury ocean liners crossing the Atlantic like the Titanic, but their primary purpose was always for travel – to get from Point A to Point B. They were never for the shear pleasure of going out to sea and enjoying time onboard. So finding a round-trip manifest at such an early date seemed wrong. But when I really thought about it, I was not at all sure when that transition was first made. When was the first actual cruise ship, purely for the purpose of tourism and leisure?
So I googled, as you do, and learned about a chap named Albert Ballin, director of the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft (HAPAG), or Hamburg-America Line, who first came up with the idea. He took his first stab at it in 1891 with the Augusta Victoria, but it was a major failure. He had attempted to retrofit one of his companies existing commercial ocean liners into a luxury cruising vessel. What he found were issues with limited deck space, a lack of onboard amenities, ugly machinery, and that the ship was to large to fit into the ports of popular tourist cities. There was also a great deal of push back from the German people, who generally preferred utility over luxury, as well as a growing anti-Jewish sentiment (Ballin was jewish) that would explode in future decades. So in 1901 he started over and expanded his client base and built the first modern “cruise ship”, or “cruising yacht” as they referred to it at the time – the Prinzessin Victoria Luise. The Princess was not only a great-grand daughter of Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany, but also of Queen Victoria of England – opening up to interested passengers outside of Germany. According to a July 2021 article in Smithsonian Magazine – the ship “boasted a large gymnasium, a social hall, a library, a smoking room, a palatial art gallery surrounding the dining room, spacious promenade decks, a ballroom for dancing, a darkroom for amateur photographers and 120 unusually commodious first-class only staterooms—each equipped with elegant European furnishings, brass beds and double-light portholes that were opened when the ship was in warm climates.”
However, although it boasted the same name, this was NOT the ship that Julia and Marcellus sailed on. I was confused further when I continued to read that the Prinzessin Victoria Luise ran aground in Jamaica in 1906. And although all of the passengers and crew were rescued, the captains immediate suicide over his blunder after the accident became highly publicized. Ballin then ordered a replacement vessel, by the name of the Meteor. But after the 1906 accident, and further still after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, cruising began to subside drastically.
So what was the ship that Julia and Marcellus boarded in 1913? Looking further I learned that the same company, HAPAG, built another ship in 1900 called the Deutschland. Unlike the Augusta Victoria before it, this ship was meant for passenger travel between destinations – like the Titanic – but it was not originally meant for long term luxury cruising like the Prinzessin Victoria Luise or the Meteor – but still, ALL of these ships still also had destination in mind and not necessarily round-trip cruising. None-the-less, the Deutschland was rechristened as a cruising yacht under the name S/S Victoria Luise in 1911, in honor of the earlier ship and likely intended for destination luxury cruising like her namesake, but after the Titanic disaster on 14 April 1912, and as an attempt to offer an alternative to long distance trans-oceanic travel, she began to sail round-trip New York. As far as I can tell so far, this may be the first example of a round trip cruise. Julia and Marcellus boarded the Victoria Luise on 11 March 1913, just short of a year after Titanic, and returned to New York on 7 Apr 1913. They were 62 years old, while the average age of the passengers onboard was closer to 35. Perhaps it took a more brave and adventurous spirit to sail again.
(the image at the top of this article is of the Victoria Luise in 1900, as theDeutschland)
If you’ll indulge me for a moment further, I’d like to add one more tidbit of Sheldon history in relation to the cruise industry that I happen to be aware of. In the Spring of 1918, the 18 year old Wallace George Sheldon walked into a military recruiting office in San Francisco and was not entirely truthful to the British government by saying that he was a Canadian that had just arrived by way of Chicago from Montreal. In truth, he was born a few miles away in Oakland. It was his paternal grandmother who had been born in Montreal, and she had left there as a small girl a half-century before. He was recruited into the British Expeditionary forces as a sapper (the guys who dug the extensive trenches across France and Germany), and later told us (he was my great-grandfather), that he “went over the top” seven times until he was hit with nerve gas. He was sent to a hospital in England to recover and sailed back to the United States on the Mauritania in March 1919. The Mauritania was a cruise liner, sister ship to the Lusitania that was torpedoed in 1915, and built by the same company as the Carpathia that rescued Titanic passengers in 1912 and was also torpedoed in 1918. He later worked for the Matson Line during the 1930’s and 40’s, a later cruise line with regular itineraries out of San Francisco to the Hawaiian Islands.