Updated: May 18, 2021
Miami, Florida – June 1950
It is a Friday afternoon in Miami Old Port. At Pier 2 sailaway festivities are in full swing for an 88m / 289ft snow-white steamer with a single black-topped funnel and lines of colorful nautical flags draped from both masts. The name on her stern reads Nuevo Dominicano and her port of registry Ciudad Trujillo. Despite the sweltering afternoon heat a crowd of friends, family and onlookers have gathered on the pier, waving and shouting their goodbyes at the passengers in summer suits, leisure wear, dresses and hats, cramming the railing on the two open decks portside and enthusiastically returning the salutes. A shower of colorful streamers and confetti is thrown from the decks onto the jubilant crowd, as line handlers let the ship go and white foam starts to form around her stern. A five-man Merengue-band in tropical shirts and straw hats is working overtime to be heard amidst the din of the crowd and Captain Zamesa blowing the steam whistle repeatedly for departure.
It could have been an iconic opening scene from a ship-bound romcom starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner (which would have been fitting as Clark Gable and his wife, Sylvia would in fact be guests onboard later that same year), but it was actually a bi-weekly occurrence in a port that was not (yet) used to seeing cruise ships off year-round.
The Nuevo Dominicano was the only designated cruise ship in Miami port that day, or indeed that entire summer, because she was the first cruise ship to operate year-round out of Miami and the point of origin for Miami’s year-round cruise business and subsequent sway over the Caribbean cruise empire. She was the genesis of Miami's cruise industry but it took quite a while for Miami to get even that far.
Dawn of the 'Magic City'
As renowned and iconic a leisure destination as Miami is today, it is easy to forget how recently it even appeared on the map. First of all, wrap your head around the fact that by 1900 Florida was still largely frontier country with only about 500.000 inhabitants, most of whom were clustered along the Georgia border. The small settlement on the Miami River bearing its name was connected to the Florida East Coast Railway in 1896 but up until World War I it remained a sleepy little whistle-stop of barely 30.000 inhabitants with a shallow-draft port (Key West was the primary Florida port in those days). It was not until the great Florida land boom of the 1920´s that it even started to qualify as a city. But it was World War II that really put Miami on the map when the US Government stationed more than 500.000 men in Florida for training purposes – many of whom later chose to settle permanently here. This fed a population boom so fast and so big that it earned Miami the nickname 'the Magic City', because it just seemed to appear overnight as if by magic. By 1950 the Miami metro area was up to almost 250.000 inhabitants.
The tourism industry in Miami started up in the 1920’s but it was seasonal – Miami was initially a winter destination for the pure and simple reason that Florida summers were just too hot and humid for most visitors to enjoy (that would not change until the introduction of affordable, household cooling systems, i.e. air conditioners, right around World War II). Miami’s rather lax enforcement of Prohibition and liberal attitude to gambling became big drivers of tourism in the roaring twenties – Las Vegas may have ultimately claimed the title ‘Sin City’, but Miami was never far behind. So balmy winter weather and sinful entertainment was the original recipe for success in Miami tourism. In the late 1920's Florida also gained more accessibility with the emergence of domestic commercial air travel - one of America's first and largest air carriers, Pan American World Airways, was established in Key West in 1927 and was instrumental in bringing wealthy travellers and tourists to the 'Sunshine State' (not an official slogan until 1970 though). I say 'wealthy' because those would have been the only travellers able to afford air travel in those early days of commercial aviation. This influx of affluent tourists in turn boosted the development of the many iconic and luxury ocean front hotels that Miami became synonymous with. With all that, the foundation for Miami as a popular leisure destination was laid within one single decade.
A Bottleneck Cruise Port
The city’s convenient proximity to the Bahamas and the Caribbean made leisure cruising a no-brainer of a business idea but from the outset Miami was no one's idea of a practical cruise port. From about 5 nautical miles out to sea, ships had to navigate a narrow and shallow passage across sandbanks and coral reefs, then squeeze between Miami Beach and Fisher Island and finally sail a further 2.5 nautical miles across the shallow Biscayne Bay before reaching the port of Miami. That left the port very vulnerable to natural disasters (i.e. hurricanes) or maritime mishaps that could handicap or even cease ship traffic in and out of port (in 1926 the barkentine, Prins Valdemar, capsized in the turning basin and effectively shut the port down for six weeks). Since 1900 multiple dredging and canal projects had gradually improved the nautical access but for the first third of the 20th century it could still only service smaller vessels.
Early Florida Cruising
Likely for that same reason Miami was not the first Florida port to try on cruise operations. As far as anyone can tell, one of the first – if not the first – Florida cruise operation started in February of 1893 out of Tampa with the 1.738-ton SS Halifax of the American Plant Line running an experimental series of three 10-day cruises to Jamaica and the Bahamas. The experiment was discontinued, reportedly over a dispute between line owner Henry B. Plant and the Jamaican government over some hotel management rights. During the 1890's the Quebec Steamship Co. operated at least two winter seasons with multiple sailings from New York to the West Indies using their ships SS Madiana, SS Orinoco and SS Caribée - apparently to some success, though not enough to keep it going. In January of 1913 the Peninsular & Occidental Steamship Co. launched a season of 11-night Caribbean voyages on the SS Evangeline to Panama (to see the construction of the Canal), Jamaica and Cuba out of key West. These cruises were marketed as ‘Winter Outings on Summer Seas’ and priced from $100 per person (around $2.630 in 2021 dollars). They were repeated the following year, though this time out of Jacksonville, but then discontinued with the start of World War I.
And so went the earliest Florida cruise activity – geographically scattered fits and starts of various short-lived cruise gigs under different operators with no specific home port, no distinct market leaders and no coherent growth strategy. Just various shipping companies throwing on leisure offerings wherever it seemed practical or profitable.
The Banana Boats
During this time there was in fact a major, US-flagged cruise fleet operating in the Caribbean, but it was not based out of Florida. The Great White Fleet of United Fruit Company had been operating their unique mix of exotic fruit export / cruise product since around 1900 (read Going Bananas), but out of bigger ports like New York, Boston or New Orleans. Florida had neither the market for exotic fruits nor the ports big enough to accommodate the reefer ships and was completely bypassed by this traffic. Miami did not get in on the cruise action until after World War I, when the city established its own cruise scene in the roaring twenties with guest volumes generated by the advent of mass tourism and the nationwide wave of ‘booze cruises’ (read Booze Cruises) sparked by Prohibition. That first boom suffered a setback in 1926 when the Great Miami Hurricane (a category 4 storm) laid waste to the Miami port and downtown area and was then almost eradicated in October of 1929 with the onset of the Great Depression – the collapse of the American economy hit the leisure industry hard and cruise traffic out of Miami slowed to a trickle.
The Interwar Years
By the early 1930's a massive port expansion and harbor dredging project finally made the port accessible to larger ships and Miami – now gradually re-emerging from the throes of the Great Depression - eventually grew a small and strictly seasonal cruise market that would last the rest of the 1930’s. These ships were either local liners taking time out from their regular Bahamian/Caribbean schedules to go cruising or they were US and Canadian ships coming down from the Upper East Coast where they would spend their summers running liner service/cruises in Canada/New England or on the Bermuda run. Many of these cruises were descendants of the Booze Cruises of the 1920’s - although Prohibition had been repealed in 1933, there continued to be a market for cheap and cheerful pleasure cruises with lots of drinking, gambling and partying for most of the 1930’s (especially in a sinner's haven like Miami). But among them, you also started to see more mainstream, conventional cruise products, centered more on relaxation, discovery and leisure. This pre-war passenger traffic eventually reached a peak of 66.000+ passengers a year (though that also counts non-cruise pax), making Miami the third-busiest port in the US after New York and Seattle.
All this traffic was halted by the outbreak of World War II during which many of the local liners were conscripted for war service and prowling German submarines along the US East Coast and in the Caribbean put a stop to all non-essential shipping. After the war leisure cruising took some time to wind back up again, with Peninsular & Occidental’s SS Florida being the first to resume cruising in 1947. Other lines followed, but still only on a seasonal basis and passenger counts were significantly lower than their pre-war volume.
And so it could have gone on for a while yet, were it not for one man.
Frank Leslie Fraser
Enter Scottish-Jamaican entrepreneur Frank Leslie Fraser II. The Fraser family had started a banana shipping business out of Jamaica in the 1930’s which had prospered and spawned several other shipping entities, like the Fraser Fruit & Shipping of Cuba, the Dominican Fruit & Steamship Co and the Maple Leaf Steamship Co of Montreal – all of which Frank now presided over. In his capacity as President of the Dominican Fruit & Steamship Co. he retained a close commercial and personal relationship with the Dominican government, which essentially meant with the Dominican dictator, Generalissimo Raphael Trujillo, and that had earned him the additional title of general administrator of the Flota Mercanta Dominicana (FMD) – the national shipping line of the Dominican Republic.
The SS New Northland
In 1948 the FMD purchased the Canadian liner/cruise ship, SS New Northland, with the intention of placing her in regular liner service between New York and Ciudad Trujillo (as General Trujillo had ‘modestly’ renamed the capital of Santo Domingo). The 3.445 GRT, British-built steamer from 1926 was renamed Nuevo Dominicano and crewed by the Dominican Navy. The New York – Ciudad Trujillo line never gained the popularity General Trujillo had hoped for and after 1½ years, the ship was pulled from the run. Meanwhile, Frank Leslie Fraser had taken a shine to leisure cruising, despite his primary background as a cargo operator, and was watching the re-emerging leisure cruise business with great interest. He became convinced that the phenomenon held a much larger potential than was currently being exploited and when the Nuevo Dominicano became available, he eyed an opportunity to enter the business himself. He negotiated a charter of the Nuevo Dominicano from the FMD and set up the Eastern Shipping Corporation to run his new venture. A man ahead of his time, not only was Fraser aiming to popularize longer leisure cruises of 10, 12 and 14 days (longer than the standard voyage formats of the time), he was also intent on making it a year-round operation.
Just the right time
With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to spot the major movements in US economy and society that made this the perfect time and spot for this kind of idea. The booming post-war US economy and the creation of a middle class with the means and desires to vacation expensively fueled a sharp increase in domestic tourism as the US returned to normal after WWII. The evolution of mass media, in particular the household TV, made it possible to project the marketing lure of exotic leisure cruising far wider than before and the increased mobility of American consumers by car, by rail and now also by plane, made it easier for them to reach even the far-flung departure ports. The advent of commercial air conditioning systems, not just ashore but onboard as well, made Florida / the Caribbean not only a bearable but an attractive year-round holiday destination and the sudden abundant availability of retired ocean liners for cruise conversion (as airplanes had rendered them obsolete) made it easy for operators to start up mainstream cruising operations. Whether some or all of them informed Frank’s initiative or whether he just took a chance on Miami’s tremendous population boom and continuing transition to year-round holiday destination, I cannot say but he stepped into the mix at just the right time with just the right idea.
The Nuevo Dominicano Experience
The Nuevo Dominicano was no stranger to Miami or to Caribbean cruising - she had already spent most of the 1930's doing seasonal cruises - very successfully - out of Miami under the name SS Northland (and later SS New Northland) and under the banner of the Canadian Clarke Steamship Company. She had in fact been the first ship to introduce week-long cruises in Miami in 1927. Trading on her brand name recognition, Fraser made sure all marketing of the Nuevo Dominicano labelled her as the 'former SS New Northland' in parenthesis. At 24 years of age in 1950 the classic steamer was no spring chicken but she had it where it counted: she was built as a luxury ship with quality materials, fine woods and rich designs which added class and elegance and helped disguise her true age. With a deck height of more than 8 ft / 2,5 m and a 2/3 majority of all-outside 108 sq.ft. / 10 sq.m. staterooms, she felt considerably more spacious and palatial than her contemporaries. She featured a well-appointed dining saloon, an upper-deck, window-clad observation lounge, a stately smoking lounge with a skylight and a coal fireplace and an elegant verandah cafe with a dance floor in the stern, as well as wide open promenade spaces on the main and boat deck. In the late 1930's the forward cargo hatch area had been converted to a small but functional swimming pool.
1930's pictures of the SS New Northland interiors
Fraser had the Nuevo Dominicano renovated before (re-)starting her Miami career; on the outside she received a fresh coat of Caribbean White for the warmer climate. Thanks to the quality craftsmanship and materials of the ship, the interiors made do with more of a makeover than a refurbishment. If anything, Fraser tweaked the style of the interiors away from the ‘symbol of national pride’ vibe that General Trujillo had desired for the ship and more towards symbol of leisure and relaxation (though he was unable to get rid of the giant, boastful portrait of General Trujillo that adorned the main staircase). Installing an air-conditioning system onboard would have upped the selling points of the ship considerably, but the technology was still new and costly and the ship already had electric fans installed onboard, so Fraser skimped on that part. One interesting new feature he installed, which would eventually become a major entertainment prop of the cruise ship experience, was a casino – a very generous term for 3 restored one-armed bandits (slot machines), reportedly salvaged (and still barnacle-encrusted) from the Hudson River in New York, where Mayor LaGuardia had thrown them after his 1942 anti-gambling crusade. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that part of the onboard franchises was run by the Miami mafia (Sin Cities are not run by saints, you know!). Thusly groomed for her new role, the Nuevo Dominicano took up year-round cruising from Miami in January of 1950.
The early Seasons
The Nuevo Dominicano quickly regained some of her pre-war popularity, though perhaps not as much as Fraser had hoped for, as he did have challenges filling the sailings initially. Never the less, every sailing was a popular spectacle with colorful streamers and confetti raining down from the ship and lively Meringue music seeing her off. That quintessential atmosphere of classic and exotic leisure cruising was a big part of the appeal for the Nuevo Dominicano. That first year saw her doing alternating 12-day Caribbean cruises out of Miami, taking in the Bahamas, Jamaica, West Indies and of course the Dominican Republic, and 2-day jaunts to Nassau. The longer cruises were priced at $240 to $360 pp (the equivalent of $2.600 - $3.900 in 2021) and the short Nassau getaways at $49 - $73 pp ($530 - $789 in 2021). For a time when the average US household income was about $3.500/ month, this certainly qualified as luxury. The Captain as well as most of the deck and engine departments were Dominican and spoke little to no English, but luckily experienced Jamaican crew in housekeeping / F&B and Americans in Cruise Staff / Pursers Department took up the slack and provided the excellent customer service the ship became known for. It was the arrival of the Nuevo Dominicano and the introduction of cruises year-round that brought the passenger numbers for port of Miami back up to their pre-war levels of 60.000+ per year and beyond.
The Nuevo Dominicano only lasted until 1953 with ESC. She was getting too small and too old for the kind of business Fraser was envisioning and he was no doubt also growing weary of dealing with the Dominican ownership, in particular the meddlesome and megalomaniacal Generalissimo Trujillo. He returned her to the Dominicans, where she quickly faded from glory due to poor passenger service, and went on to bigger, better things. In 1954 he bought up Eastern Steamship Lines (estb. 1901) for himself, complete with sister ships the Yarmouth (later known as Yarmouth Castle and Queen of Nassau) and the Evangeline, both from 1927 and around 5.000 GRT. He retained the Eastern Shipping Corporation name but did brand the ships with a big old F on the blue funnel for 'Fraser' to signal that he was now his own man in the cruise business.
The Fleet expands
In 1959 he expanded the fleet with the 9.920-ton Bahama Star (previously the Arosa Star of Arosa Line) - at the time the largest ship to ever cruise out of Miami - and also took on a partner to help him run the growing operation; William R. Lovett, himself a former fruit shipping operator and founder of the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain. In 1961 they purchased the 7.500-ton Ariadne (formerly the Patricia of Hamburg-America Line) and ran what had now become one of the biggest year-round cruise fleets out of Miami. Like most other cruise ships of the era, the Fraser fleet consisted of retired medium range passenger liners. No one in the fledgling cruise industry had the financial robustness to invest in newbuilds and purpose-built cruise ships would not come along until the 1970's. But thanks to the airliner’s encroachment on maritime passenger traffic in the 1960’s, there were plenty retired liners in layup that were cheap and only required an affordable refit to go cruising.
In 1962 Fraser sold the Eastern Shipping Corporation to Lovett, who changed the name to Eastern Steamship Corporation and exchanged the F on the funnel for an L, but otherwise kept on cruising as before. A few months after the sale, Frank Leslie Fraser died at the age of 57, missing by a decade or so to see the events he had started turn into the foundation of a cruise industry proper with total Miami passenger numbers exceeding 250.000 / year and the main players of this industry to date coming into existence.
The Fraser Legacy
Fraser’s operation marked a couple of cruise history milestones. Though he operated several different shipping brands, Eastern Shipping Corporation was the only one dedicated exclusively to leisure cruising and therefore deserves to be called the first true Miami-based cruise line and the forefather of all subsequent designated Miami cruise lines. His initiative to operate year-round cruising out of Miami inspired others to follow suit and thereby created the stable business environment for a full-time cruise industry to emerge that soon took over the cruise traffic from the passenger/cargo shipping industry that had previously only run it as a sideline. The fact that Miami became the birthplace of modern American cruising seems to have been at least partly incidental. Sure, Miami was a conveniently located boomtown but it had little else to distinguish it from any number of other prospering coastal cities and it is not inconceivable that if Fraser had operated elsewhere, we might have been talking about Key West or Palm Beach or even Jacksonville as the ‘cruise capital of the world’ today.
As inextricably associated with cruising as it is today, Miami actually entered cruise history quite late. Cruising had been around in Europe for more than 100 years by the time the cruise business in Miami showed signs of being anything other than a niche, seasonal leisure market. If not for hurricanes, depressions and world wars it might have gotten there a lot earlier, but that was not to be. But if you had to fix a point in time when Miami’s fate changed from just another run-of-the-mill, seasonal cruise port to birth place of the American cruise Industry and ‘cruise capital of the world’, it would be with the arrival of the Nuevo Dominicano and the first year-round cruises.
And it all started with Frank Leslie Fraser.
Epilogue: Seeds of an industry
And when I say it all started with Fraser, I am only partly using a narrative gimmick. When Fraser died, two of his sons, Lewis and Frank, set up a company to handle the family business and named it ‘Royal Caribbean’. At the time they were working out of an office in old Miami Port, directly above the offices of Yarmouth Steamship Co. which was managed by a young Edwin Stephan. The brothers struck up a relationship with Stephan and when Lewis Fraser later went into cruise line catering, he re-connected with Stephan at Commodore Cruise Line for work. Not long after, Stephan founded a new cruise line with a conglomerate of Norwegian shipping companies and took both the son of Frank Leslie Fraser and the name ‘Royal Caribbean’ with him into the new venture. Fraser’s original company, Eastern Shipping Corporation, also became part of the Royal Caribbean entity. William Lovett sold it in 1970 to the Norwegian Gotaas-Larsen Corporation – a partner in the very same shipping conglomerate that founded Royal Caribbean.
The founders of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line
Edwin Stephan (L) and his Norwegian partners (L to R) Harry Irgens Larsen, Mortis Skaugen, Gjert Wilhelmsen, Brynjulf Skaugen, Sigurd Skaugen, Arne Wilhelmsen, RCCL Blog
But that’s not all. While still pursuing their own fortunes in the 1960’s, the Fraser brothers established Pan American Cruise Line – a short-lived venture that tried to acquire the Israeli ferry Nili as their first ship. The deal fell through, but brought the Nili to the attention of cruise operator Ted Arison who was also looking to start on his own. His deal also fell through and left him in such precarious business circumstances that he decided to make a last-ditch phone call to Norwegian shipping tycoon, Knut Kloster, to pitch him a cruise line idea. That call did go through and formed the genesis of Norwegian Caribbean Line (later Norwegian Cruise Line). And when the Arison / Kloster partnership eventually broke up in the early 1970’s, Ted Arison struck out on his own and formed Carnival Cruises ..… and you can almost hear the dominoes starting to fall faster and louder as the contemporary cruise industry grows from here.
Once partners, then rivals - the founders of NCL and Carnival Cruises
Knut Kloster (L) on the SS Norway bridge and Ted Arison (M) at the
Carnivale launch, Cruise Industry News
Yes, that is all either very serendipitous or just emblematic of how close and interconnected the players in small niche markets are. Either way, I just love the notion of how the Fraser DNA directly or indirectly influenced the course of the budding cruise industry in Miami from obscure regional leisure phenomenon to global travel and leisure empire.
This is the sixteenth article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and ability and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.