Too good to be true?

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model of ship in display case

SS America. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I’m a great admirer of beautiful ships but in the tough realm of trading it also helps to be practical and economical.

In the shipping world, like any other commercial enterprise, you have to be competitive – there is no sentiment in business and profits literally keep ships afloat.

The steamship America was a stunningly lovely ship, as a 1:48 scale model in Merseyside Maritime Museum’s new emigrant gallery clearly demonstrates.

This is my favourite ship model in the museum, displaying the graceful lines of the America to perfection. Her two black and white funnels are finely proportioned and tiny detailing such as individual deck planking adds an air of reality. The remarkably-detailed figurehead shows a woman in flowing white robes.

Perhaps the America was too good for the work she had to carry out – a transatlantic passenger liner with the Liverpool shipping company, National Line. The 5,528-ton America was built in 1884 for National by J and G Thomson of Clydebank. Her owners hoped she would be faster than any of her rivals in the highly-competitive north Atlantic passenger trade. The 442 ft long liner was powered by 9,000 hp engines and could travel at 18 knots.

On her first voyage between New York and Liverpool she made a record crossing of six days, 14 hours and 18 minutes. As is so often the case, her moment of glory was soon eclipsed and the record was beaten by other vessels on the route.

America was an elegant ship looking like a very large steam yacht. However, her large coal consumption and high fares made her too expensive for the north Atlantic with its cut-throat competitiveness.

Just three years after being built the America was sold to the Italian Government, renamed Trinacria and was used by the Italian Navy. She was scrapped in 1925. There is more on the SS America on our main website.

Another model of a J and G Thomson ship is on the gallery - the Friesland (more on that ship on our main site). However, she was a profitable ship that saw many years of service on the north Atlantic. Friesland was built in 1889 for the Red Star Line’s Antwerp to New York passenger trade which she served until 1903.

Red Star was eventually absorbed into American financier J Pierpont Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine along with White Star, Dominion, Leyland and Atlantic Transport Co shipping lines.

The International Mercantile Marine was set up in an attempt to monopolise the North Atlantic shipping trades.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).