That ship has sailed
(Second of a series)
One day, the restrictions on travel between the United States and Cuba will end. When it arrives, business people in Key West, Florida, hope their city can again be the U.S. gateway to the island just 94 miles to the south.
The resumption of automobile ferry service between Key West and Cuba could help make that happen. But it won't be on the S/S City of Havana, the steamship that carried cars and their passengers between the two nations from March 1956 to October 1960.
The City of Havana was built for a different purpose. It was launched at Newport News, Virginia, in late 1943 as HMS Cutlass, one of four dock landing ships earmarked for Britain's Royal Navy under the U.S. Lend-Lease Act. Unadorned and awkward of line, the 458-foot vessel would one day earn mention on a website dedicated to the "ugly ships" of the world.
But it was wartime-practical, with a deep centre well that could be flooded to discharge a cargo of landing craft or other amphibious vehicles or kept dry for the transport of trucks and tanks. Two Skinner UnaFlow five-cylinder reciprocating steam engines, fed by a pair of huge oil-fired boilers, could propel it at 18 knots. Lining its upper structure were sixteen anti-aircraft guns and a three-inch/50-calibre "dual-purpose" gun that could defend against enemies in the air or on the surface.
Records show it in action for just one day, but that day was momentous.
Early on June 6, 1944, the Northway set out from England carrying 46 DUKWs, the amphibious trucks known as "Ducks." Shortly after 6 p.m. it discharged the Ducks and their crews at Juno Beach, a stretch of Normandy coastline by then under the control of the Canadian troops whose D-Day mission was to secure it.
After the Second World War, the Northway was returned to the U.S. Maritime Commission, and a year later sold to Atlas Metal Corp.for disposal. How it spent the next decade is not recorded, but in 1956 it would re-emerge, stripped of its guns and painted shiny, peacetime white, as the City of Havana.
Its new owner was the West India Fruit and Steamship Co., an American concern (despite its exotic name) that already operated five railcar ferries between Florida and Cuba. With the City of Havana, its first (and only) auto and passenger ferry, the company was entering new territory, but its expansion was well-timed: more and more vacationers were setting out on the U.S.'s new Interstate Highway System, looking for holiday adventure.
And adventure was what West India promised. In advertisements, it urged motorists to travel south from Miami along the bridge-lined U.S. Highway 1, known as the Overseas Highway, and then, at Key West, to drive on to the City of Havana. After a daylight cruise across the Straits of Florida, they could roll off the ferry "to tour the enchanting, historical tropical Island of Cuba via the paved, 700-mile Central Highway traversing the Island from east to west."
According to keywest2havana.com, a website launched by Key West History magazine to build interest in renewed links with Cuba, a round trip cost $76 per car and $23.50 per person. Passengers who didn't wish to spend the seven-hour trip on deck or in the lounge, snack bar or beverage bar could reserve an air-conditioned stateroom for $10. The City of Havana, with room for 500 passengers, 125 autos and eight rail cars, would make the round trip as often as three times a week until service ended in 1960.
According to an Associated Press report in the Ocala, Florida, Star-Banner, the last departure from Cuba on Oct. 31 was delayed for five hours while authorities searched the vessel. "The militia men went through the ship again and again before they let us go," a passenger told an American reporter.
The West India company, however, said that poor patronage, not Cuban government interference, forced it to cancel the ferry service. In its final months on the route, the ship was making just one return trip weekly.
The nations responsible for building the S/S City of Havana could never have predicted the next flag that would fly over the former dock landing ship.