The SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie

Published january 3, 2024 | Written by emily cough | edited by bhhs staff
Photo of the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie.

We promised we’d touch base on the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie back on our Way Back for pilot Victor Vernon and here we are!

Our story of the interred ship begins in 1906 Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland). Built for the shipping company, Norddeutscher Lloyd(NGL), the “steel-hulled steamship” ocean liner was launched on December 1, 1906, and would make her maiden voyage the following year (Cressman 2023).

The Cecilie, named after Prussia and Germany’s last crown princess, Duchess Cecilie, was the last of four ships that would be known as “the four flyers,” starting with the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (1897), the Kronprinz Wilhelm (1901), and the near-twin of the Cecile, the Kaiser Wilhelm II (1903) (Othfors 2012).

Some passenger ships were built for speed, others for luxury (like the Titanic). The first of the flyers, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, was built for speed. In the year it launched, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse earned top spot for highest recorded speed for a passenger liner going eastbound with the Blue Riband award, an unofficial accolade (“Great Ocean Liners | Blue Riband,” n.d.). A year later, going westbound, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse again earned the informal Blue Riband recognition.

Taking the honor from the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in 1900, the Hamburg-Amerika Linie Deutschland was the one to beat. Itching to reclaim their title, the NGL built its second ship, Kronprinz Wilhelm. Proving successful, the westbound Kronprinz Wilhelm took the crown.

The third ship, the Kaiser Wilhelm II, also beat out the reigning champ, the Deutschland, in 1904—only this time going eastbound.

Though there weren’t plans in the beginning to have a tetrad of ships, the NGL proved successful with their fleet and wanted to add one more, a sister ship to the Kaiser Wilhelm II. The fourth ship that took up residency to round out the flyers was that of the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie.

Despite these sound ships being built by a formidable company, the NGL wouldn’t see another Blue Riband “win” until 1929 with the Bremin, a performance that could be attributed to the Cecilie’s rocky beginning.

In July of 1907, the newly built Kronprinzessin Cecilie had its scheduled maiden voyage out of Bremerhaven, Germany. Only, “before the maiden voyage could take place, the ship sank in Bremerhaven harbour,” (Othfors 2012). Thankfully, however, after a month of repairs, the Cecilie made her official maiden voyage on August 14th, 1907.

For the next 7 or so years, things on the Cecilie ran smoothly. The Kaiser-class ships were popular amongst the wealthiest passengers to the poorest of emigrants, who “could sail on Kronprinzessin Cecilie for a mere $25,” compared to the $2,500 first class suite ticket (which comes out to just over $80,000 in 2023, adjusting for inflation) (Mahler Foundation 2016).

The Cecilie was beautiful inside, designed by Eduard Scotland and Alfred Rung, the

“luxury cabins where the beds would convert to sofas and the washstands would convert into tables…the metalwork was gilded; the surfaces were generally white while the wooden surfaces of violet amaranth were inlaid with agate, ivory and citron wood” (Mahler Foundation 2016).

Interior of a suite on the Kronprinzessin Cecilie.
Cecilie Interior

The impressive ship had “287 first class, 109 second class cabins and 7 compartments for steerage passengers,” able to accommodate

“775 first class, 343 second class and 770 steerage passengers for a total of 1,888… [as well as] a crew of 679 that included 229 stewards and stewardesses and 42 cooks, pantrymen, barbers, hairdressers and other passenger service people” (Mahler Foundation 2016).

Because it was built by the NGL, who already had Blue Riband recognition for its other three flyers, the Cecilie was also a speedster, clocking in around 22.5 knots. For comparison, its winning sisters had top speeds at 22.33, 23.09, 23.58 for the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Kronprinz Wilhelm, and Kaiser Wilhelm II respectively.

All was well for the Cecilie until the outbreak of the Great War, officially beginning the 28th of July 1914. Being a German-led company and solely traversing the Atlantic Ocean for its voyages, the NGL was on high alert, considering Germany was now an enemy to the Allied powers (namely Britain). When word reached the Cecilie about the outbreak of war, it was already in the “middle of the Atlantic heading for Germany.” And not only that, but the liner happened to be carrying a very, very large sum of gold. Fearing “confiscation [of] his ship,” commanding officer Captain Polack turned back to the then-neutral United States (Othfors 2012).

To mislead any enemies further, Polack and some volunteers painted the Cecilie’s “all-buff funnels with a black top,” hoping to fool the British into believing that the ship was the White Star Line’s Olympic, a predecessor to the infamous Titanic.

With a new paint job and plan, the Cecilie turned back to the United States, “chased by two French torpedo boats” (The Bar Harbor Record 1914). It’s inevitable destination? Bar Harbor, Maine.

Arriving in the early hours of August 4, 1914, the steamer anchored “between the steamboat wharves and the Porcupine [islands]” (The Bar Harbor Record 1914). Word of the impressive ship spread rapidly and later that day reporters were allowed on board. There, after securing an interview with a passenger, The Bar Harbor Record reported,

“according to data received…the captain came to the smoking room, saying that he received instructions to return to America, that he had enough fuel and food to last. The passengers did not know where they were headed for as he would not tell…There was little sleep on board the liner that night…On Saturday, August 1st, here was noticed on the chart a poster saying, ‘Returning very far north.’ The captain told the passengers that in case all lights were extinguished, not to get excited…On Saturday, the top of her stacks were painted black to look like the Olympia. On Sunday, August 2…[at] night the ship was darkened, not a light on her. A thick fog came up in the early evening. The captain did not reduce speed nor sound his horn. The ship was kept dark. The passengers were badly frightened” (The Bar Harbor Record 1914).

This comes two years after the tragedy of the Titanic. With a gilded interior, smoke stacks that now resembled the disastrous White Star Line ship, and little information from the captain, it’s no wonder the passengers were terrified.

Thankfully for the Cecilie, its fate was much more positive. By pure happenstance, two parties of first-class passengers had summer homes here. The first, Mrs. Katherine Hinkle (née Davis), wife of Anthony Howard Hinkle, and their daughter, despite being on the Cecilie for a romp around Europe, owned the Donaque on Cleftstone Road. So, “as dawn broke on August 4, 1914, Mrs. [Hinkle] and her daughter, thinking at first that they were nearing the Azores, gradually discerned the outlines of their own Bar Harbor cottage, and they began to weep copiously” (Helfrich and O’Neil 2015). As for the second party on the ship, Clinton Ledyard Blair, who owned Blair Eryie (originally named Avamaya) on Highbrook Road, seemed to know the Frenchman Bay waters very well and even “assisted the captain in navigating the ship” (The Bar Harbor Record 1914).

The 150 first class, 350 second class, and 950 steerage passengers were welcome to Bar Harbor’s shores with open arms—and so was their mail, which the “officers of the steamship asked the Bar Harbor post office to forward the [3500 mail bags]” (The Bar Harbor Record 1914)!

On August 12, The Bar Harbor Record reported that the Selectmen of Bar Harbor “made arrangements with the captain” to have their band come ashore to play at the Village Green. In addition, they also made an agreement for visitors to come aboard the impressive vessel for one day only, on Sunday the 15th; “no visitors [were] admitted before that, and after Sunday no visitors [were] admitted” after that (The Bar Harbor Record 1914).

As for its passengers, The Bar Harbor Record noted that the first class passengers were to be “taken to New York on the 9 p.m. boat” on August 4th and that the “second class passengers [would] probably follow Wednesday.” As for the steerage passengers, they were expected to be transferred to trains (The Bar Harbor Record 1914).

On November 5th, after some debate whether or not the ship should be taken to New York or Boston, it was decided that the steamer would indeed be taken to Boston to “winter” there (The Bar Harbor Record 1914). The New York Times reported the ship would be sent to Boston, “where she [would] remain pending the determination of civil suits against her owners in the Federal courts” (The New York Times 1914).

The Cecilie sat in Boston’s harbor virtually untouched until February 3, 1917, when U.S. Marshal John J. Mitchell and a team of 150 deputies seized control of the vessel, “without the slightest warning to those on” the ship (The Bar Harbor Times 1917). Unfortunately for Germany, this was right before we officially entered the war, in April 1917. They would never gain back its ship or its treasure aboard.

Instead of remaining in Boston’s harbor to rust, the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie was repurposed and renamed the USS Mount Vernon, to be used on military exploits.

Despite being torpedoed by a German U-boat, where it sustained considerable damage to its aft engine room, and suffering the loss of 36 men and 13 injured, USS Mount Vernon was able to limp its way to France, where it was repaired temporarily until it could be fully serviced in Boston later (Cressman 2023).

The final chapter in the famed Cecilie comes as WWII begins to break out; “the Americans,” in 1939, “offered the former Kronprinzessin Cecilie to the British as a troop-transport, but they considered her too old,” after the vessel had sat vacant since 1919 (Othfors 2012). Because of this, the U.S. had no further use for the ship and had her scrapped in Boston “on 13 September 1940” (Cressman 2023).

And the very large sum of gold we mentioned earlier? It totaled $8,000,000 in 1917, according to The Bar Harbor Times. Today, that would equate to just under $200,000,000. That must’ve been a pretty penny for the U.S.’s war efforts.

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Reference List

The Bar Harbor Record. 1914. “The Kronprinzessin Cecilie: Driven In Here By French Torpedo Boat.” August 5, 1914.

The Bar Harbor Record. 1914. “Kronprinzessin Cecilie’s Band Concert.” August 12, 1914.

The Bar Harbor Record. 1914. “U.S. Warship May Convoy The Cecile to Boston.” October 14, 1914.

The Bar Harbor Times. 1917. “They Damaged the Engines of the Big Liner—Kronprinzessin Cecilie Seized by Marshals.” February 10, 1917.

Cressman, Robert J. 2023. “Mount Vernon III (Id.No. 4508).” Naval History and Heritage Command. October 31, 2023. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/m/mount-vernon-iii.html.

“Great Ocean Liners | Blue Riband.” n.d. Great-Ocean-Liners. https://www.greatoceanliners.com/blue-riband.

Helfrich, G. W., and Gladys O’Neil. 2015. Lost Bar Harbor.

Mahler Foundation. 2016. “S.S. Kronprinzessin Cecilie – Mahler Foundation.” April 18, 2016. https://mahlerfoundation.org/mahler/locations/atlantic/s-s-kronprinzessin-cecilie/.

The New York Times. 1914. “German Gold Ship to Quit Bar Harbor.” November 6, 1914.

Othfors, Daniel. 2012. “Kronprinzessin Cecilie.” 2012. https://web.archive.org/web/20160303191954/http://www.thegreatoceanliners.com/kpc.html.