“He is genial, yet you take no advantage of it; he is kindly, but his eyes can grow hard upon necessity,” said one journalist about Philadelphia mover-and-shaker Clement Acton Griscom (1841-1912), the most powerful shipping mogul in 1900s America.
Clement Griscom was a birthright Quaker, but plain he most definitely was not. He dressed in the finest English fashion — “kid gloves and an English cutaway” — and drank champagne with every lunch. He lived in a Frank Furness-designed mansion in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Related by marriage to the painter Celicia Beaux, he cut a big swath in Philadelphia’s business and social worlds. Yet Griscom was always something of a rebel, despite his solid place in the Philadelphia establishment. He refused to go to college and become a doctor or a lawyer, preferring to enter the rough-and-tumble world of international shipping. Griscom loved making money and the good life his success brought him, but his real passion was to restore the dominance that American shipping had possessed in the years before the Civil War, when sailing packets and clippers flying the Stars and Stripes ruled the waves. Yet in the age of steam, America fell behind its longtime rival Great Britain.
After putting in his time as a shipping clerk and office administrator, he partnered with the Rockefellers and the Pennsylvania Railroad to build four large steamships — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana — to carry cargo, passengers and petroleum to European markets. Yet Griscom had a hard time making his American shipping business pay. High American labor and construction costs — as well as cumbersome congressional regulation — made his International Navigation Company unprofitable, and it only survived thanks to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s erratic support.
In 1871, Griscom shrewdly struck a deal with the Belgian government and founded an Antwerp-based subsidiary of his company. The Red Star Line — supported by a $100,000 annual subsidy from the Belgians — allowed Griscom not only to build ships in European yards, but also to tap into the endless tide of immigrants fleeing Central and Eastern Europe. As a port, Antwerp enjoyed extensive rail connections with the rest of Europe, and allowed Griscom’s ships to compete head-on with the German ones in transporting people to new lives in America. Tens of thousands of Jews fleeing czarist pograms found their way to Philadelphia (as opposed to New York and Baltimore) by way of Antwerp and the Red Star Line. Because of its proximity to the immigration processing station, South Philadelphia (east of Broad) had one of the largest Jewish populations in America, second in fact only to New York’s teeming Lower East Side. According to the National Archives, “Some authorities have credited the Red Star Line for more than 40% of this Jewish immigration that came to North America between 1873 – 1934.” For a $25 steerage berth in the bottom decks of a Red Star liner, immigrants usually spent their life savings and sold most of their possessions.
Griscom’s involvement in the lucrative immigrant trade allowed him to build larger and faster ships, and increased his fortune many fold. By the 1880s, he had taken over England’s moribund Inman Line and commissioned the two largest and fastest transatlantic liners in the world: the City of New York and City of Paris of 1889. A few years later, Griscom and his allies strong-armed Congress into allowing these British-built ships to be registered under the American flag. For the first time since the 1850s, American now was in possession of the fastest liners on the North Atlantic route. He also used his influence to get a substantial mail subsidy for these two ships, as well as assistance for the construction of two new ones — the St. Louis and St. Paul — at Philadelphia’s Cramp Shipyard.
In addition to Cramps, Griscom also turned to the experienced (and cheaper) shipwrights of Harland & Wolff, located in the religiously explosive cauldron of Belfast, Ireland. He admired the company’s ability to create solid but yacht-like liners that emphasized comfort and fuel-economy rather than breakneck speed. In the 1890s and early 1900s, Harland & Wolff of Belfast and Cramps of Philadelphia turned out a superior series of moderate-sized liners for Griscom’s companies. These included the SS Kroonland, SS Lapland, SS Finland, and SS Belgenland. Yet by 1900, most of the Red Star Line’s ships sailed out of New York on their crossings to Antwerp. Two smaller liners, the aptly-named SS Haverford and SS Merion, continued transatlantic passenger service out of Philadelphia. Despite Philadelphia’s reputation as an industrial powerhouse, New York was attracting the lion’s share of European immigrants. Compared to the baroque grandeur of the U.S. Immigration Station at Ellis Island, the Washington Avenue facility was quite modest.
As his success continued to build, Griscom become more obsessed with passenger ship design. Fueled by the desire to enlist “the art and skill of the most masterful minds,” Griscom was elected the first president of the American Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (S.N.A.M.E.), the first professional organization of its type in the United States.
Yet Griscom’s winning streak vanished when he partnered with his friend J.P. Morgan in an effort to gain a monopoly of all ships on the transatlantic route. In 1901, Morgan and Griscom started cajoling — or threatening — major British, German, and French shipping lines into accepting buy-outs in exchange for joining a massive shipping trust called the International Mercantile Marine. What the Pennsylvania did for the railroads, Griscom hoped the I.M.M. would do for Atlantic shipping: eliminate unnecessary competition with an efficiently-run trust that gave the traveling public and exporters regularly-scheduled fares and departures.
Cunard fought off IMM’s advances. As did the French Line. North German Lloyd and Hamburg-America made profit-sharing agreements with the combine. Yet Griscom and Morgan’s biggest coup was snapping up Britain’s White Star Line for a whopping $32 million. Yet they had bitten more than they could chew; the trust floundered as a result of continuing rate wars and coal strikes, as well as a slump in immigration due to the Panic of 1907. Both men would regret investing millions more dollars in the construction of three White Star superliners at Harland & Wolff. One sideswiped an iceberg, killing 1,500 passengers and crew. Another, His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Britannic, capsized after hitting a mine off the coast of Greece during World War I. Her sinking claimed 30 lives. Only the RMS Olympic died in bed — she was scrapped in 1935.
Griscom died of a stroke at his South Carolina winter home in the fall of 1912. Although Griscom’s health had been failing for years, many felt his death was hasted by the Titanic disaster. Morgan passed away the following year. “The ocean was too big for the old man,” The Wall Street Journal eulogized.
The Red Star Line ceased passenger operations in the 1930s, a victim of the Great Depression, as well as strict American immigration quotas that effectively barred people from Southern and Eastern Europe from America’s shores.
For more information, see the Red Star Line Museum, which is scheduled to open in Antwerp this year.
Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians (University of Pennsylvania Press), 1999. p.253.
Charles Cramp, as quoted by Cramp’s Shipyard (Philadelphia: The William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company) 1902, p.128.
William H. Flayhart III, The American Line: 1871-1902 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company) 2000, p.65.
Stephen Fox, Transatlantic (New York: Harper Collins), 2003, p.259, 267.
“The Red Star Line: Changing America’s Face and Place in the World,” The National Archives at Philadelphia. http://www.archives.gov/philadelphia/public/red-star-line/index.html