As Maine waits for cruise ships and their free-spending passengers to reappear, return with me to Bar Harbor’s surprising experience with a luxury liner 107 years ago.

SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie in Bar Harbor, after the ship’s funnel tops were painted black in order to disguise the vessel as the RMS Olympic. Public domain

In July 1914, the world was tense. On June 28, a Serbian nationalist assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg. One month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia had previously informed European powers that if Austria-Hungary made war on Serbia, Russia would become involved. France supported Russia. Germany said it would support Austria-Hungary if Russia became involved. On July 31, Russia began general mobilization. World War I was about to erupt in what Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman famously called the “Guns of August.”

Amid this tension, the German luxury liner Kronprinzessin Cecilie, hailed as “the Queen of the Seas,” because of its size, luxury and speed. unexpectedly appeared at anchorage in Bar Harbor around 4 a.m. on Aug. 4.

According to the Aug. 5 Bar Harbor Record, “The telephone operators were soon aware of her presence and those early upon the streets became excited as they learned of the presence here of the big German ship, and spread the news.”

The Cecilie carried about 1,900 passengers and crew (over 1,000 Germans and Austrians) as well as $10 million in gold and silver bullion that New York banks and financiers were shipping across the Atlantic. She had sailed from New York on July 28 around 1 a.m. (before Russia started general mobilization), bound for Bremerhaven, Germany, by way of Plymouth, England.

The captain carried a sealed package from the ship’s owner, North German Lloyd, with instructions to open it if he ever received a message from “Siegfried” relating to some disease. On July 31 at 10 p.m. ship’s time in mid-ocean, his chief officer brought the captain a German wireless message that somebody had fallen sick. It was signed “Siegfried.” The captain opened his sealed package and found a code that enabled him to decipher the rest of the message. It said: “War has broken out with England, France, and Russia. Return to New York.”

At the time, the Cecilie was about 1,070 nautical miles from its first destination, Plymouth, England. Fearing capture by a belligerent, the captain immediately gave orders to turn the Cecilie around toward the west. Some of the passengers, still dancing, noticed that the moon unaccountably shifted to the other side of the ship.

The luxury cabins aboard the Cecilie were designed by Eduard Scotland and Alfred Runge, with beds that converted to sofas and washstands that turned into tables. Public domain

The Aug. 5 Bangor Daily News reported that the captain soon told passengers: “War has been declared between England, France, Germany and Austria; we are going back to America. We have enough coal for our return home and it is my earnest hope that we shall not be intercepted by foreign war vessels.”

He ordered that outside lights be extinguished, portholes darkened and curtains drawn. He had the tops of the smokestacks painted black, to make the ship appear to belong to a British shipping company. Over the next few days despite the darkness of night and a dense fog, “the captain did not reduce speed nor sound his horn,” the Bar Harbor paper reported. “The passengers were badly frightened, and a committee of men went to the captain requesting him to start his horn and to reduce his speed, which he did.”

THE TREASURE AND THE LAWSUIT

A young New York passenger was quoted in the Aug. 5 Boston Globe: “One old German said: ‘O, well, we’ll strike the side of America somewhere, I know.’ ”

Hearing radio traffic from French or British vessels, the captain and his officers decided on Aug. 3 that New York and Boston harbors might involve danger and decided to run for Frenchman Bay and Bar Harbor. They engaged the piloting services of a millionaire yachtsman on board, C. Ledyard Blair of New York, who had cruised the Maine coast extensively.

Upon the ship’s arrival, The Boston Globe reported Aug. 4, “the permanent residents and hundreds of summer visitors, including members of Bar Harbor’s wealthy colony who had a financial interest in the gold cargo, flocked to the shore.” The Bangor Daily News and The Globe quickly labeled the Cecilie the “Treasure Ship.” The BDN printed the passenger list. On it were several congressmen and the governor of Delaware.

Unlike today’s cruise ship passengers, many folks – interrupted on their trans-Atlantic voyage – wanted to leave Bar Harbor as soon as possible. According to The Globe, a special train was arranged from Bar Harbor with coaches and sleepers to take passengers to New York via Bangor, Portland and Worcester. Some went directly to Rockland to board steamers to Boston.

But if the passengers were uninterested in Bar Harbor, Bar Harbor was certainly interested in the ship. The Aug. 18 BDN reported that large numbers of local people had visited the liner, but that further visits would probably be curtailed “on account of the loss of many articles which have been taken as souvenirs, presumably, by visitors to the ship.”

The gold and silver bullion was quickly returned to its shippers. But the banks claimed the liner should not have turned back on July 31 because war had not actually been declared when the captain reversed course.

They said he could have made it safely to Plymouth  since Britain did not join the war until Aug. 4. The United States remained neutral until 1917). The banks claimed significant damages from the failed shipments. As a result, on Aug. 24. they sued (“libeled”) the ship in the federal court’s admiralty docket. (Later, two passengers intervened, also claiming damages.)

Admiralty law allows someone with a proper claim to have a U.S. Marshal (with a U.S. district judge’s approval) arrest a ship in the federal district where she is located. The ship remains under the district court’s control until the claim is resolved or the owner posts a satisfactory bond in place of the ship. Clarence Hale was the only federal district judge in Maine, and he approved the ship’s arrest. On October 21, Judge Hale conducted a hearing, concluded “that the present anchorage is impracticable during the winter season,” and with the consent of the parties ordered that the U.S. Marshal move the ship to the District of Massachusetts. The proceedings promptly resumed in federal court in Boston as the Maine proceedings were dismissed.

‘I SHALL NOT MOVE THIS SHIP’

Unlike the passengers, the captain was not eager to leave Bar Harbor. According to the Oct. 27 Lewiston Evening Journal, when Maine’s U.S. Marshal Wilson served the captain with Judge Hale’s order to move the ship to Boston, “the hands of the Captain clinched. He drew his body erect in the chair. ‘I shall not move this ship until I am given, in writing, the orders to do so by my company, and not until I have written guarantee from your government that my ship and my men will be protected.’ . . . . Rising, Captain Polack strode back and forth across the cabin several times. It was then his bigness became apparent. He was tall, standing over six feet. His weight was well over the 200 pounds. He looked like a man born to command.”

The captain had an alternative: “Why not permit us to remain here? This is a splendid anchorage, while President Roads in Boston harbor is not. Here I have the whole bay, there it is rather crowded. Here my men can go fishing, they can dig some clams and they can get lobsters. It is a good place to stay, if we must stay idle. I have no desire whatever to go to Boston.”

In January 1915, the Bar Harbor Times said that the ship “was moved to Boston because a lot of people who did not know what they were talking about said she would be injured by the ice in Frenchman’s Bay.” Referring to a reporter from Boston, the Times observed. “This is mid-winter and there is not enough ice in this harbor to fill an ice bag to reduce the swelling in The Globe man’s head.”

But under Judge Hale’s order, the Cecilie steamed to Boston. According to the Globe: “No interference with the progress of the craft is anticipated, … the understanding being that the countries now at war with Germany have acquiesced through their diplomatic representatives at Washington in plans for a pacific transfer.” It arrived in Boston Harbor at dusk on Nov. 6, convoyed by torpedo boat destroyers Lamson and Terry. The Globe described it as “the most beautiful and the second largest craft that ever entered this harbor.”

THE SUPREME COURT RULES

Judge Hale went to Boston to try the case in 1915 between March and May, with final arguments in December. The issue was whether the captain was justified in turning back when he did. Judge Hale found that the captain knew at the time that “if he proceeds much further, there will not be sufficient coal left in his bunkers to return to the United States.” Judge Hale’s February 1916 opinion ruled in favor of the ship’s owner and against the bank and passenger claims on the basis that the captain exercised proper discretion in protecting the ship, its passengers, and cargo. He said the captain “impressed me as being a truthful man and a faithful, trustworthy shipmaster.” But the losing parties appealed.

In November 1916, the Court of Appeals agreed that passengers were not entitled to recover, but in a split decision reversed Judge Hale’s decision and found that the banks could recover damages. The Cecilie remained under arrest while the case went to the Supreme Court.

On May 7, 1917, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion written by Civil War veteran Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. reinstating Judge Hale’s ruling that the Cecilie’s captain acted prudently.

According to Holmes, the captain “was not bound to deliver the gold in England at the cost of capture,… he was entitled to take reasonable precautions to avoid that result.” His “anticipation” of war was correct, and he “is not to be put in the wrong by nice calculations that if all went well he might have delivered the gold and escaped capture by the margin of a few hours.” So the banks could not recover.

CECILIE DRAFTED, RENAMED

But by the time that the Supreme Court decision released the Cecilie from the admiralty seizure, the United States had declared war on Germany. As a result, military authorities seized the vessel and the Cecilie was converted to a transport renamed the USS Mount Vernon.

According to a Navy history of the ship, it then crossed the Atlantic 18 times, transporting 35,000 American soldiers to France through the submarine zone. A German submarine torpedoed it Sept. 7, 1918, about 200 miles off the French coast, causing many casualties, but it was able to return to port in Brest, France, was repaired and made eight more crossings, returning 24,000 American soldiers home as the war ended.

It became known as “Queen of the Transport Fleet.” It was decommissioned in 1919 and mothballed at a Maryland anchorage. A 1931 article in the Washington Evening Star described it as having only “one room unchanged since the day she was launched” – the nursery, with its walls “covered with typically German oil paintings of scenes from fairy tales,” such as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood.

The Cecilie-Mount Vernon was offered to the British as a troop transport when war broke out in Europe in 1939, but the offer was rejected because of its age.

Bar Harbor’s “Treasure Ship” – “Queen of the Seas” and “Queen of the Transport Fleet” – was ignominiously scrapped in 1940.


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