Today, cargo, mail and passengers arrive in three distinct carriers that approach the island in different ways. Cargo goods are consolidated and shipped in containers and brought on fast-moving barges to the south shore container port. Passengers come mainly in commercial airlines to the international airport or on the seaplanes to downtown ramps. And mail, depending upon the amount of postage paid, is transported either by airline or by container through the post office.
Over a century ago, everything that came to the island of St. Croix was transported in a ship.
History of the port
In 1758, Frederiksted became St. Croix’s second port. West End planters needed a legal and secure outlet through which to export their sugar, molasses and rum. Enslaved labor, under the direction of the Danish administration, cleared the land. They dredged the harbor with pickaxes, shovels, buckets and hand-operated slings to deepen what was a roadstead. Frederiksted’s unprotected coast before and after the expansion was exposed to the weather and to marauding privateers.
The merchants and planters desired a port that would be secure. Thus, Fort Frederik was constructed between 1752-1760. At the same time, the Danish administration expected to collect the taxes on goods that either went out or came in ships to the harbor. Therefore, a town was laid out. Near the wharf, the fort and the combination customs/scale house were constructed. Soldiers supplied the fort to enforce the laws.
Around the 1850s, Frederiksted became the hub of the shipping industry on St. Croix. Similar to Christiansted, the Frederiksted harbor could not accommodate large ships. In Frederiksted the wharf did not extend far enough out to sea. Large ships had to anchor at least 30 feet offshore. Thus, a system of lighter boats, stevedores and porters had to be employed in order to get the goods from the ships to the wharf and the goods from the wharf to the ships.
Merwin and Co.
In a biography of the Robert L. Merwin Company, John J. O’Connor related how Merwin started his entrepreneurship in 1892 when he took over the Armstrong sugar brokerage firm in St. Croix. At the same time, he and the Armstrongs had set up a general merchandise store for the sale of nonperishable food items. Besides stocking their own wholesale and retail stores in both Christiansted and Frederiksted, they sold goods to owners of a dozen small retail stores in Frederiksted.
Additionally, Merwin & Co. operated its own schooners, transporting goods from New York to St. Croix. In return they sent back sugar, rum and molasses. Merwin had a business established in New York, which received and sold sugar to Boston and New Jersey refineries.
The company concentrated on being commission agents (taking goods and rendering payment when the goods were sold) to planters for whom they sold large quantities of raw sugar, molasses and rum. In return, they acted as agents using the moneys from the sales to purchase needed estate goods.
At the same time, the Merwins discontinued their own shipping business and became agents for several steamship companies that included St. Croix in their routes. Highly popular at the time was the Quebec Steamship Company.
Quebec Steamship Company
Since 1874, the Quebec Gulf Ports Steamship Company continually had provided services between the ports of the St. Lawrence River. Looking to expand, their first breakaway route from the St. Lawrence River area was a shuttle between New York and Bermuda, transporting foodstuffs and dry goods to Bermuda and bringing back onions.
Six years later, with a desire to expand shipping to other West Indian islands, the company included the Windward Islands in its routes. With an eye to providing service to two of the focal ports in the Caribbean, Barbados and Demerara, it then scheduled interval ports of call: St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. Kitts, Antigua, Guadeloupe, Dominica and Martinique. In order to provide service, the company in 1907 had acquired three midsize sister ships, each between 3000-4,000 tons: the Korona, Parima, and Guiana.
A great deal of labor was required to load the ships in a timely manner so that they could be off to the next port. According to O’Connor, “Depending on the amount of cargo tons a ship would bring or take, the number of stevedores, lighter-men and warehousemen required would be 80-100 men.”
O’Connor also explained that if there was less than the minimum weight, then goods for St. Croix would be consolidated with those of Puerto Rico and transshipped from that island.
The Guiana, the largest of the three Quebec Line West Indies steamers, ran with one steamer engine with one funnel. It had been created as a freighter, Thus, it had a large hold in which hogsheads of sugar, molasses and rum could be stowed and transported from the Caribbean and sold to New York outlets. Sugar and molasses were shipped from the cane factories both in hogsheads and in 250-pound burlap bags. The latter were easier for porters and stevedores to move from the wharf to the ship and pack in the hold.
Before a ship docked in the Frederiksted harbor, the bags of sugar had been trucked to the wharf from both the La Grange and the Bethlehem factories. At the wharf, O’Connor wrote, the bags were loaded by hand labor in a rope sling with five or six bags. The bundles were then loaded into the lighters operated by the Merwin Lighterage Company. The lighters were towed from the wharf by rowboats to the offshore steamships, The packs of bags were then brought to the hatches in the slings.
Those men serving as porters and stevedores on the wharf enjoyed the higher-paying jobs as compared to those of the field laborers. Not only was making more money important, but the fact that the men could negotiate their own labor and work for whom they wished at what number of hours and for what salary was paramount. Thus, men sought these positions. With the competition for these positions, the government in turn regulated porters and cartmen.
Dozens of women profited by the loading of the ships. They either waited on the wharf or were rowed out to the boats to sell fresh fruits and vegetables to the crew and the passengers.
The three ships were fueled by coal. On the outbound voyage, the ship stopped in St. Thomas, where there were a number of coaling firms. In 1910, with Emile A. Berne as agent, the Quebec Company had contracted with the St. Thomas Dock and Engineering and Coaling Company for refueling. All of the St. Thomas coaling companies employed women as coal workers.
Using the incoming and outgoing records of the customs house offices, both the local newspapers report the different kinds of cargo taken in and sent out of the port. The figures reflect the harvest of sugar cane. During the height of the season, ships were chartered to export sugar to northern U.S. cities.
On May 4, 1908, from the Frederiksted harbor, the S.S. Guiana took 204 bags of sugar, 20 barrels of onions and 20 barrels of tamarinds. In June of the same year, the ship took on 75 hogsheads and 400 bags of sugar.
In July 1908, the Guiana then took 5,760 bags of sugar from La Grange central factory to New York.
On Oct. 31, 1908, the Korona arrived from New York via St. Thomas, bringing 3,000 packages of merchandise and two passengers for St. Croix. When the steamers were scheduled to arrive or depart, Robert L. Merwin hired 100 part-time stevedores.
Besides the sugar factories, the St. Croix Plantation Company owned a number of acres in which a forerunner of the St. Croix Experimental Agricultural Station was planting onions, pineapples, and bananas for export. The harvest of these crops was packed onto the ships and sold to residents of temperate climates. These tropical fruits were a novelty, and St. Croix contributed to the large banana industry that had sprung up in northern U.S. cities.
Additionally, the Quebec Company ships worked with other shipping agencies and ferried goods to Christiansted. A shipment of 1,100 pieces of lumber had originally been brought to Frederiksted by the British barkentine C.B. Widden from Carabelle, Central America. As the second lap of its trip, the Parima brought the lumber to the Christiansted warehouses of Moses Melchior and Son.
With the success of shipping cargo, and taking a few travelers on the side, passenger services were then offered in earnest. The well-known British travel agency of Thomas Cook & Sons sold reservations in first class staterooms and third class steerage accommodations.
Once the passenger service was inaugurated, the author, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, had written four articles in prestigious magazines, praising the amenities provided by the Quebec Line on its Bermuda routes. His descriptions of cruising in the Caribbean became popular and launched a whole new branch of travel.
Wintertime sailings were then offered weekly from New York to Bermuda. In a four-day trip, travelers were amazed in the change of temperatures and wrote of wearing woolen clothes when they embarked on the ship and lighter cotton ones when they arrived in the Caribbean ports. The costs of passenger tickets was around $200 round trip. The length of stay at each port depended upon the amount of cargo to be taken at the port by the shipping company. Between six to 24 hours was a normal layover.
The cruises called at a number of ports in the Windward Islands. On most of these routes St. Croix and St. Thomas were included, if not on both the inward and outward voyages, at least one. In her diary, Rachel Armstrong Colby recalled how she and her family started their voyage from St. Croix. She wrote of their stops in various ports in the Caribbean. A few years ago, an exhibit of her photos, accompanied with her writings, were on display at the St. Croix Landmarks Society. Colby particularly took photos and wrote of market women in each place she had visited.
During the early years of the century, the ships’ passage was used for business purposes. Well-off school children from St. Croix were enrolled in the Antigua Grammar School. Both David C. Canegata and Miles Merwin, son of Robert Merwin, were sent to Antigua. Once finished with his secondary education, Canegata no doubt took one of the ships from St. Croix first to New York and then to Canada, where he enrolled at McGill University in Montreal.
A more notorious passenger was Hezekiah Smith, who had escaped prison at Richmond Penitentiary and fled by ship to New York. Authorities there apprehended him when he was involved in another crime. They extradited him to St. Croix for trial. He was escorted by Sheriff L. Dendtler and returned to St. Croix to stand trial for murder.
In nearly every Crucian family, there is at least one person who took a boat to establish a new life in New York. Mary Roebuck has the various papers documenting her uncle Jarvis Goodwin Roebuck’s journey in 1907. On his native St. Croix, 26-year-old Roebuck was a saddler and an employee of the Penthany Hotel, Christiansted.
After ferrying to St. Thomas in a small boat from Christiansted, he then caught the Parima in St. Thomas. The ship’s manifest gives his height, weight, and eye and complexion color and says that he intended to go to 222 E. 127th St. in New York.
Service to the islands
The transporting of cargo was the mainstay of the Quebec Company. Once they were established with that part of the business, they could take on mail contracts and offer passenger services. Thus, the Quebec Line’s West Indian routes prospered between 1907-1920.
In 1919, after 50 years of remarkable service, the Quebec Steamship Line was sold to another Canadian firm. In 1920 they sold the Korona, and both the Parima and the Guinea were scrapped. And so ended the story of the three sister ships who serviced the needs of the Caribbean.
People speak fondly of the Guiana. Some speak of her in genteel terms saying she “the ultimate Quebec Line ship.” In the language of stability and sturdiness, they call her “ the workhorse” of the Caribbean fleet.