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Exciting Times On The Liner Normannia

By James Donahue

When launched in 1890 and German liner Normannia joined a fleet of twin-screw express steamships operated by the Hamburg-Amercan line offering competitive passenger service between New York, England and Germany.

The Normannia at 500-feet in length was considered a leviathan in its day. This liner, and her sister ships, The Columbia, Aguste Victoria, and Furst Bismarck were all constructed in nearly the same mold, and all busy maintaining a weekly express service across the Atlantic.

These ships had five decks, the superstructure constructed of steel and teek wood, the upper decks designed with turtle-backs at both the bow and stern. Three funnels rose from the hurricane deck. The graceful design of the hull and the low masts of these ships, without yards, were designed to offer the least resistance.

All of these liners were designed for speed and safety. In an attempt to make them "unsinkable," the ships were subdivided into numerous watertight compartments. The hulls had double bottoms, with the space even there divided into chambers that could be filled or pumped free of water on command, thus increasing or decreasing the draught and guarding against grounding in shallow waters.

For speed, the liners carried two separate engines and boilers that worked independently of each other, and were divided by bulkheads that divided the engine rooms into two halves, each fully equipped to drive the ship in the event of trouble in one of the engine rooms.

In its hey-day, the Hamburg-American line held the record for the fastest time across the Atlantic from New York to Southampton. The company’s best time was six days, 10 hours and 32 minutes.

The Normannia was built for safety, but she had at least two narrow scrapes with disaster at sea non-the-less. On one of her first trips, with her big 8000 horsepower engines pushing the ship at over 17 knots, the ship narrowly struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Her skipper, Captain C. Hebich, said the ship was running in heavy fog with over 1,000 passengers and crew members aboard, when the massive block of ice was spotted dead ahead. A hard turn to port saved the ship, but not before it scraped the ice and damaged the iron plates on the upper decks at the stern.

Hebich said about twenty tons of ice broke off and fell on the decks, raising fears that some of the passengers may have been buried under it. But after quickly clearing away the ice, it was found that nobody was injured. The captain said most of the passengers were unaware of the incident. He said the design of the ship with its twin screws and dual engines made the sharp turn away from the iceberg possible.

Captain Hebich said when the fog lifted it was discovered that the ship was passing through a field of icebergs.

On January 20, 1894, the Normannia, still under the command of Captain Hebich, was struck by a huge tidal wave after leaving New York. It happened on Sunday morning, while most of the passengers were still in their beds, so they escaped injury. But the vessel was so slammed by the wave that her bows were left bowed in, cabins were wrecked, the deckhouse almost completely demolished and furniture smashed into kindling.

A story in the New York Times said "the wave swept over her port bow with tremendous force, twisting the steel rails at the bow, then rushing on, it stove a hold 20 feet wide and five feet high through the deckhouse and flooded the saloons and cabins to a depth of three feet.

Six members of the crew were left badly injured by the incident.

The damage was so severe and with six injured crew members on board, Hebich turned the vessel around the put back to New York harbor.

A third unfortunate incident struck the Normannia in 1892 when cholera broke out among the 482 immigrants packed in steerage in the lower decks while the liner was steaming for New York. After reaching port, the ship and all of its passengers and crew were placed in quarantine and forbidden to leave the ship for days. Among them was a well-known British singer who was on her way to New York to make her American debut.

A wealthy New York man, Adolph Lewisohn, negotiated the purchase of Fire Island off New York that featured a hotel and 13 cottages as a place for the 573 passengers in the ship's upper cabins to stay during the quarantine. Lewisohn said he did it on behalf of his brother, Leonard, who was among the ship's passengers.

The Normannia was sold and converted to be the Spanish auxiliary cruiser Patriota in 1898. The following year it was sold once again and renamed L. Aquitane. The vessel was scrapped in 1906.