RMS Queen Mary is a retired ocean liner that sailed primarily on the North Atlantic Ocean from 1936 to 1967 for the Cunard Line (known as Cunard-White Star Line when the vessel entered service). Built by John Brown & Company in Clydebank, Scotland, Queen Mary along with her sister ship, RMS Queen Elizabeth, were built as part of Cunard’s planned two-ship weekly express service between Southampton, Cherbourg, and New York City. The two ships were a British response to the superliners built by German and French companies in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Queen Mary was the flagship of the Cunard Line from May 1936 until October 1946 when she was replaced in that role by Queen Elizabeth.(1)
Queen Mary sailed on her maiden voyage on 27 May 1936 and captured the Blue Riband in August of that year; she lost the title to SS Normandie in 1937 and recaptured it in 1938, holding it until 1952 when she was beaten by the new SS United States. With the outbreak of World War II, she was converted into a troopship and ferried Allied soldiers for the duration of the war.(2)
Following the war Queen Mary was refitted for passenger service and along with Queen Elizabeth commenced the two-ship transatlantic passenger service for which the two ships were initially built. The two ships dominated the transatlantic passenger transportation market until the dawn of the jet age in the late 1950s. By the mid-1960s, Queen Mary was ageing and, though still among the most popular transatlantic liners, was operating at a loss.(3)
After several years of decreased profits for Cunard Line, Queen Mary was officially retired from service in 1967. She left Southampton for the last time on 31 October 1967 and sailed to the port of Long Beach, California, United States, where she remains permanently moored. Much of the machinery, including one of the two engine rooms, three of the four propellers, and all of the boilers, were removed. The ship serves as a tourist attraction featuring restaurants, a museum, and a hotel. The ship is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has accepted the Queen Mary as part of the Historic Hotels of America.(4)
Construction and naming(5)
With Germany launching Bremen and Europa into service, Britain did not want to be left behind in the shipbuilding race. White Star Line began construction on their 80,000-ton Oceanic in 1928, while Cunard planned a 75,000-ton unnamed ship of their own.(6)
Construction on the ship, then known only as “Hull Number 534”, began in December 1930 on the River Clyde by the John Brown & Company shipyard at Clydebank in Scotland. Work was halted in December 1931 due to the Great Depression and Cunard applied to the British Government for a loan to complete 534. The loan was granted, with enough money to complete Queen Mary and to build a sister ship, Hull No. 552, which became Queen Elizabeth.(7)
One condition of the loan was that Cunard would merge with the White Star Line, which was Cunard’s chief British rival at the time and which had already been forced by the depression to cancel construction of its Oceanic. Both lines agreed and the merger was completed on 10 May 1934. Work on Queen Mary resumed immediately and she was launched on 26 September 1934. Completion ultimately took 3 1⁄2 years and cost 3.5 million pounds sterling. Much of the ship’s interior was designed and constructed by the Bromsgrove Guild.(8)
The ship was named after Queen Mary, consort of King George V. Until her launch, the name she was to be given was kept a closely guarded secret. Legend has it that Cunard intended to name the ship Victoria, in keeping with company tradition of giving its ships names ending in “ia”, but when company representatives asked the king’s permission to name the ocean liner after Britain’s “greatest queen”, he said his wife, Queen Mary, would be delighted. And so, the legend goes, the delegation had of course no other choice but to report that No. 534 would be called Queen Mary.(9)
This story was denied by company officials, and traditionally the names of sovereigns have only been used for capital ships of the Royal Navy. Some support for the story was provided by Washington Post editor Felix Morley, who sailed as a guest of the Cunard Line on Queen Mary’s 1936 maiden voyage. In his 1979 autobiography, For the Record, Morley wrote that he was placed at table with Sir Percy Bates, chairman of the Cunard Line. Bates told him the story of the naming of the ship “on condition you won’t print it during my lifetime.” The name Queen Mary could also have been decided upon as a compromise between Cunard and the White Star Line, as both lines had traditions of using names either ending in “ic” with White Star and “ia” with Cunard.(10)
In 1934 the new liner was launched by Queen Mary as RMS Queen Mary. On her way down the slipway, Queen Mary was slowed by eighteen drag chains, which checked the liner’s progress into the Clyde, a portion of which had been widened to accommodate the launch.(13)
When she sailed on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England on 27 May 1936, she was commanded by Sir Edgar T. Britten, who had been the master designate for Cunard White Star whilst the ship was under construction at the John Brown shipyard. Queen Mary had a 80,774 gross tonnage (GT). Her rival Normandie, which originally grossed 79,280 tonnes, had been modified the preceding winter to increase her size to 83,243 GT (an enclosed tourist lounge was built on the aft boat deck on the area where the game court was), and therefore kept the title of the world’s largest ocean liner. Queen Mary sailed at high speeds for most of her maiden voyage to New York, until heavy fog forced a reduction of speed on the final day of the crossing, arriving in New York Harbor on June 1.(14)
A Queen Mary baggage tag(17)
Queen Mary’s design was criticized for being too traditional, especially when Normandie’s hull was revolutionary with a clipper-shaped, streamlined bow. Except for her cruiser stern, she seemed to be an enlarged version of her Cunard predecessors from the pre–World War I era. Her interior design, while mostly Art Deco, seemed restrained and conservative when compared to the ultramodern French liner. Queen Mary proved to be the more popular vessel than her larger rival, in terms of passengers carried.(15)
“It’s Men That Count”, a late 1930s promotional poster for the Cunard Line(16)
In August 1936, Queen Mary captured the Blue Riband from Normandie, with average speeds of 30.14 knots (55.82 km/h; 34.68 mph) westbound and 30.63 knots (56.73 km/h; 35.25 mph) eastbound. Normandie was refitted with a new set of propellers in 1937 and reclaimed the honour, but in 1938 Queen Mary took back the Blue Riband in both directions with average speeds of 30.99 knots (57.39 km/h; 35.66 mph) westbound and 31.69 knots (58.69 km/h; 36.47 mph) eastbound, records which stood until lost to United States in 1952.(1)
Among facilities available on board Queen Mary, the liner featured two indoor swimming pools, beauty salons, libraries, and children’s nurseries for all three classes, a music studio and lecture hall, telephone connectivity to anywhere in the world, outdoor paddle tennis courts, and dog kennels. (3)The largest room onboard was the cabin class (first class) main dining room (grand salon), spanning three stories in height and anchored by wide columns. The cabin-class swimming pool facility spanned over two decks in height. This was the first ocean liner to be equipped with her own Jewish prayer room – part of a policy to show that British shipping lines avoided the racism evident at that time in Nazi Germany.(2)
The cabin-class main dining room featured a large map of the transatlantic crossing, (5)with twin tracks symbolizing the winter/spring route (further south to avoid icebergs) and the summer/autumn route. During each crossing, a motorized model of Queen Mary would indicate the vessel’s progress en route.
As an alternative to the main dining room, Queen Mary featured a separate cabin-class Verandah Grill on the Sun Deck at the upper aft of the ship. The Verandah Grill was an exclusive à la carte restaurant with a capacity of approximately eighty passengers, and was converted to the Starlight Club at night. Also on board was the Observation Bar, an Art Deco-styled lounge with wide ocean views.(6)
Woods from different regions of the British Empire were used in her public rooms and staterooms. Accommodation ranged from fully equipped, luxurious cabin (first) class staterooms to modest and cramped third-class cabins. Artists commissioned by Cunard in 1933 for works of art in the interior include Edward Wadsworth and A. Duncan Carse.
Queen Mary Art Deco Interiors
Mural in the main dining room, or “Grand Salon” on which a crystal model tracked the ship’s progress
First class dining room, now known as the “Grand Salon”
The Observation Bar lounge. The windows were once part of the enclosed Promenade Deck turnaround; the lounge was extended forward after 1967. World War II Arriving in New York Harbor, 20 June 1945, with thousands of US soldiers – note the prominent degaussing coil running around the outer hull.
In late August 1939, Queen Mary was on a return run from New York to Southampton. The international situation led to her being escorted by the battlecruiser HMS Hood. She arrived safely, and set out again for New York on 1 September. By the time she arrived, the Second World War had started and she was ordered to remain in port alongside Normandie until further notice.(7)
In March 1940 Queen Mary and Normandie were joined in New York by Queen Mary’s new sister ship Queen Elizabeth, fresh from her secret dash from Clydebank. The three largest liners in the world sat idle for some time until the Allied commanders decided that all three ships could be used as troopships. Normandie was destroyed by fire during her troopship conversion. Queen Mary left New York for Sydney, Australia, where she, along with several other liners, was converted into a troopship to carry Australian and New Zealand soldiers to the United Kingdom.
Queen Mary’s forward superstructure, shown here in Long Beach. When she came to Long Beach, the Sun Deck windows were enlarged and an anti-aircraft gun was placed on display astride the foremast to represent the World War II days of the great liner.
In the WWII conversion, the ship’s hull, superstructure and funnels were painted navy grey. As a result of her new colour, and in combination with her great speed, she became known as the “Grey Ghost.” To protect against magnetic mines, a degaussing coil was fitted around the outside of the hull. Inside, stateroom furniture and decoration were removed and replaced with triple-tiered wooden bunks, which were later replaced by standee bunks.
Six miles of carpet, 220 cases of china, crystal and silver service, tapestries and paintings were removed and stored in warehouses for the duration of the war. The woodwork in the staterooms, the cabin-class dining room and other public areas was covered with leather. Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were the largest and fastest troopships involved in the war, often carrying as many as 15,000 men in a single voyage, and often traveling out of convoy and without escort. Their high speed made it difficult for U boats to catch them.
On 2 October 1942, Queen Mary accidentally sank one of her escort ships, slicing through the light cruiser HMS Curacoa off the Irish coast with a loss of 239 lives. Queen Mary was carrying thousands of Americans of the 29th Infantry Division to join the Allied forces in Europe. Due to the risk of U-boat attacks, Queen Mary was under orders not to stop under any circumstances and steamed onward with a fractured stem. Some sources claim that hours later, the convoy’s lead escort[clarification needed] returned to rescue 99 survivors of Curacoa’s crew of 338, including her captain John W. Boutwood. This claim is contradicted by the liner’s then Staff Captain (and later Cunard Commodore) Harry Grattidge, who records that Queen Mary’s Captain immediately ordered the accompanying destroyers to look for survivors within moments of the Curacoa’s sinking.
In December 1942, Queen Mary carried 16,082 American soldiers from New York to Great Britain, a standing record for the most passengers ever transported on one vessel. During this trip, while 700 miles (1,100 km) from Scotland during a gale, she was suddenly hit broadside by a rogue wave that may have reached a height of 28 metres (92 ft). An account of this crossing can be found in Carter’s book. As quoted in the book, Carter’s father, Dr. Norval Carter, part of the 110th Station Hospital on board at the time, wrote in a letter that at one point Queen Mary “damned near capsized… One moment the top deck was at its usual height and then, swoom! Down, over, and forward she would pitch.” It was calculated later that the ship rolled 52 degrees, and would have capsized had she rolled another 3 degrees. The incident inspired Paul Gallico to write his novel, The Poseidon Adventure (1969) and carry the incident to a fictional extreme. This was adapted as a 1972 film by the same name, in which the SS Poseidon is turned upside-down, and the trapped passengers try to escape. Naturally parts of the film were shot in the actual Queen Mary, conveniently docked in Long Beach.
They planned to develop the land adjacent to Queen Mary, and upgrade, renovate, and restore the ship. During their management, staterooms were updated with iPod docking stations and flatscreen TVs, and the ship’s three funnels and waterline area were repainted their original Cunard Red color. The portside Promenade Deck’s planking was restored and refinished. Many lifeboats were repaired and patched, and the ship’s kitchens were renovated with new equipment.
In 2004, Queen Mary and Stargazer Productions added Tibbies Great American Cabaret to the space previously occupied by the ship’s bank and wireless telegraph room. Stargazer Productions and Queen Mary transformed the space into a working dinner theatre complete with stage, lights, sound, and scullery.
In late September 2009, management of Queen Mary was taken over by Delaware North Companies, who plan to continue restoration and renovation of the ship and its property. They were determined to revitalise and enhance the ship as an attraction. But in April 2011, The City Of Long Beach was informed that Delaware North was no longer managing Queen Mary. Garrison Investment Group said this decision was purely business. Delaware North still manages Scorpion, a Soviet submarine that has been a separate attraction next to Queen Mary since 1998.
Evolution Hospitality, LLC. assumed operational control of the Queen Mary on 23 September 2011, with Garrison Investments leasing Queen Mary.
In 2016 Urban Commons, a real estate company, assumed the lease of the Queen Mary. They revealed plans to extensively renovate the liner over the next year, and to redevelop the adjacent 45 acres of parking with a boutique hotel, restaurants, a marina, an amphitheater, jogging trails, bike paths, and possibly a huge Ferris wheel, all at a cost of up to $250 million.
Meeting of the Queens
Queen Mary and Queen Mary 2 meeting in Long Beach, California under the words “HAIL TO THE QUEENS” formed by skywriting
On 23 February 2006, RMS Queen Mary 2 saluted her predecessor as she made a port of call in Los Angeles Harbor, while on a cruise to Mexico. On March 2011, Queen Mary was saluted by the MS Queen Victoria while fireworks were going on, and on 12 March 2013, the MS Queen Elizabeth made a salute while there were fireworks.
The salute was carried out with Queen Mary replying with her one working air horn in response to Queen Mary 2 sounding her combination of two brand new horns and an original 1934 Queen Mary horn (on loan from the City of Long Beach). Queen Mary originally had three whistles tuned to 55 Hz, a frequency chosen because it was low enough that the extremely loud sound of it would not be painful to human ears.
Modern IMO regulations specify ships’ horn frequencies to be in the range 70–200 Hz for vessels that are over 200 meters (660 ft) in length. Traditionally, the lower the frequency, the larger the ship. Queen Mary 2, being 345 meters (1,132 ft) long, was given the lowest possible frequency (70 Hz) for her regulation whistles, in addition to the refurbished 55 Hz whistle on permanent loan. Fifty-five Hz is the “A” note an octave above the lowest note of a standard piano keyboard. The air-driven Tyfon whistle can be heard at least 10 miles (16 km) away.
Queen Mary’s wireless radio room W6RO
Queen Mary’s original, professionally manned wireless radio room was removed when the ship was moored in Long Beach. In its place, an amateur radio room was created one deck above the original radio reception room, with some of the discarded original radio equipment used for display purposes. The amateur radio station, with the call sign W6RO (“Whiskey Six Romeo Oscar”), relies on volunteers from a local amateur radio club. They staff the radio room during most public hours. The radios can also be used by other licensed amateur radio operators.
In honour of his over forty years of dedication to W6RO and Queen Mary, in November 2007 the Queen Mary Wireless Room was renamed as the Nate Brightman Radio Room. This was announced on 28 October 2007, at Brightman’s 90th birthday party by Joseph Prevratil, former President and CEO of the Queen Mary.
Rumors of hauntings
Following Queen Mary’s permanent docking in California, the ship was rumored to be haunted. Since the 1980s, this supposed haunting has been featured in the marketing and promotion of the ship, with various attractions and tours presenting the theme for visitors. The ship was ranked as “one of the top 10 most haunted places in America” by Time Magazine in 2008.
In particular, Cabin B340 (formerly Cabin B326, prior to the ship’s refitting after World War II) is alleged to be haunted by the spirit of a person who was murdered there. Individuals have reported hearing sounds of children playing in the nursery. Other reported ghosts include a young sailor who was accidentally killed in the ship’s engine room, crewmembers of the Curacoa who were killed when Queen Mary collided with her, and an unidentified “lady in white”. At least one book has been written on the subject.
At least 49 crew and passengers are known to have died during the Queen Mary’s service as a luxury liner. Although many hauntings are reported as the ghosts of drowning victims, the ship’s logs do not record any instances of passengers drowning. Approximately 75% of the deaths were crew members, and about 25% were passengers. It is unknown how many servicemen or POWs died aboard the Queen Mary during her stint as a troop transport ship in World War II.
Paranormal researcher John Champion writes in Skeptical Inquirer Magazine that he understands why people persist in believing that the Queen Mary is haunted when the only evidence given is anecdotes, creepy feelings and shadows. Tourists who sign up for the haunted tour are given access to normally off limit areas of the ship, while tours of the history of the ship are more limited. Champion believes that the owners are doing a disservice to the real history, the people who should be honored “by remembering who they really were and what they actually did”. He understands why people report strange occurrences, the ship still creaks and groans, and people’s imaginations can get away from them such that they start seeing and hearing all kinds of things, attributing them to the paranormal which they have been primed for. “Ghost stories are fine”, concludes Champion “when presented as such. The confusion of science and history with fiction … gets us further away from the ability to relish in and truly explore our own recent history.”