The steamship company popularly called “The Ward Line” existed in many guises over its 117-year history.
The Ward Line initially grew out of the chandlery and freight consignment business of J.O. Ward & Co., begun by James Otis Ward in 1841 in New York. J.O. Ward & Co. flourished and quickly grew to operate their own brigs and barks in service between New York, the coastal United States, the Caribbean, South America, and Europe.
Upon the death of James Otis Ward in 1856, his son James Edward took over the business, sold the chandlery to his brother, and reinvented the company as J.E. Ward & Co. of 113 Wall Street, New York. Under the younger Ward’s leadership, the company’s services were scaled back to general freight consignment and regular service between New York, Cuba, and the Bahamas. It was during the mid-1860s, as the feet of sailing vessels grew, that the popular title “Ward Line” was associated with the company’s service between New York, Nassau, Havana, and the sugar ports of Southern and Eastern Cuba. (Sugar would remain a primary northbound cargo for many years, as well as Cuban mahogany, tobacco, and molasses and Mexican henequen, sisal grass, and coffee.)
Through the investment capital of several business partners, Ward was able to begin modernizing the company’s fleet in the mid-1870s. Many of the family’s sailing vessels were sold off, and in 1877 the line’s first purpose-built steamers were launched. This early gamble paid off, and in 1881 Ward and his investors incorporated the New York & Cuba Mail Steamship Company of New York to facilitate the growing business (the popular title “Ward Line” was retained).
In 1888, the Ward Line was able to purchase the fleet, equipment, and good will of its primary competitor on the Cuban routes, the Alexandre Line. In doing so, it also took over the Alexandre Line’s freight contracts and subsidies for service to the east coast of Mexico. The Ward Line’s association with Mexico would last another sixty years.
James E. Ward succumbed to Bright’s Disease in 1894, leaving his long-time investing partner Henry Prosper Booth to continue operating the line. Under Booth’s leadership, the line survived the requisition of its entire fleet for service in the Spanish-American War of 1898. A fleet of foreign-flag charters replaced the Ward ships while they served the U.S. Army and Navy as troop ships, auxiliary cruisers, and supply vessels.
Demand for freight and passenger services increased after the war. The company responded by enlarging its passenger fleet and creating two new subsidiaries designed to evade foreign taxes: Cia. Cubana de Navegacion for cargo service in the West Indies and Cia. Mexicana de Navegacion for passenger and freight service to the ports of Eastern Mexico. New tonnage also increased, until by 1907 the fleet had become totally modernized and was recognized as a leader in U.S. intercoastal service.
It was also in 1907 that Charles W. Morse’s ill-fated shipping conglomerate, the Consolidated Steamship Lines, acquired the Ward Line for an inflated sum. Not long after, Consolidated went bankrupt, threatening to take all of the companies under its umbrella with it. The management of the Ward Line hastily joined forces with other Morse purchases to become the Atlantic, Gulf & West Indies Lines (AGWI) in 1908. Under the new arrangement, joint resources could be pooled while each company operated under its own independent management. The Ward Line would operate under the AGWI holding company for nearly the rest of its existence.
The Ward Line suffered considerably because of the World War One. First, its two newest liners (Havana and Saratoga of 1907) were requisitioned; then, two large and modern passenger ships under construction at the time (Orizaba and Siboney of 1917) were taken over by the government and converted for war service. These two liners were eventually returned to the line, but mismanagement, the reduction in services, and the costly rehabilitation of its aging fleet nearly bankrupted the company again in the early 1920s.
United States subsidies rescued the company, which by 1930 was experiencing a precarious renaissance. The government financed two new luxury liners in 1929 (Morro Castle and Oriente) to combat foreign competition on the New York-Havana route, and in these ships the line found itself operating two of the finest vessels in the U.S. Merchant Marine. The Ward Line fared reasonably well through the first part of the Depression, partially because the line offered cheap cruises to passengers weary for escape. Subsidies kept the company operating and cheap labor was plentiful. This period of relative calm was short lived, however, for a series of misadventures soon diminished the line’s spotless reputation for safety at sea.
The Morro Castle of 1930, one of the two new vessels financed by the government, mysteriously burned at sea in 1934— most likely at the hands of a disgruntled crew member. The Morro Castle fire was the worst disaster ever to befall a merchant vessel registered in the United States. This disaster claimed 134 lives and was compounded by the sinking of the Ward Line chartered steamer Mohawk and the grounding of the Ward liner Havana, which occurred within months of each other on the heels of the tragic fire.
The Ward Line never recovered from these public relations disasters. In 1935 the Ward name was dropped forever in favor of the less recognizable “Cuba Mail Line.” The Ward Line’s old swallowtail house flag, white-ringed funnel markings, and black hull color were also changed between 1935 and 1939 in an effort to disassociate the line from the tragedies of 1934-35. In 1942, the remaining passenger ships in the fleet were requisitioned for war duty, never to return to Cuba Mail Line service.
The Ward Line name was briefly reinstated as “Ward Line/Cuba Mail Line” between 1947 and 1954 when Agwilines, Inc. resumed service on the old Ward Line routes with a fleet of freighters fitted with limited passenger accommodations. Unfortunately, Agwilines, Inc. was liquidated in 1954, a victim of rising fuel and shipping charges and competition from airlines.
Banking on the line’s historic association with Cuba, a group of investors under the leadership of Ted Stevenson bought the Ward Line name in 1955 and began sailing freighters with foreign registry under the company’s name. They also diversified the company by creating Ward Industries, a holding company.
Soon, however, the company’s emphasis shifted away from maritime operations and within a year the Cuban steamship company Cia Naviera García bought the Ward Line’s name and assets and reinvented itself as The Ward-García Line. The new company survived only until 1959, when the combination of declining demand and the onset of the communist Cuban Revolution put it out of business.