The EMMA ALEXANDER
Length 423.8' between perpendiculars
Displacement 7,793 tons
Ships with long lives are the lucky ones. For these, any bad luck usually comes near the end of their lifetime. The EMMA ALEXANDER was an exception. For her first six years, she was plagued by misfortune and spent considerable time in shipyards.
Originally christened the CONGRESS, she was built in 1913 at the yards of the New York Shipbuilding Co. at Camden, NJ. Intended as the flagship of the Pacific Coast Steamship Co., she went into service the same year between California ports and Puget Sound. At over 240 long and just under 7,800 tons, she was the largest American passenger vessel in coastal service at the time. The CONGRESS was heavily built with a double bottom to the top of the turn of the bilge; triple expansion steam and twin screw, she made a respectable 14 knots in service.
The CONGRESS served western ports until 1916. On September 14, she was underway 24 miles off the Oregon coast when a fire broke out in the aft freight hold. With the fire raging, her skipper, Capt. Cousins, brought the flaming steamer to anchor 2 miles off of Coos Bay and stayed aboard until every passenger and crew member were safely off the vessel. All 428 persons aboard were saved and praises were heaped on the crew for their calm selflessness during the crisis. As the lifeboats were lowered, the harbor dredge COL. P. S. MICHIE stood by to collect the souls and transport them safely to North Bend.
The superstructure of the CONGRESS was completely destroyed and her accommodations were gutted. The hull and propulsion remained intact, however, and the China Mail Line purchased the wreck for service between San Francisco and Asian ports. Renamed NANKING, her hull plating was extended up to enclose the lower side decks and increase freeboard midship and forward. All interior accommodations were remade in modern, well-appointed style.
The NANKING remained in transpacific service until 1923 when she was seized by federal agents in San Francisco for narcotics smuggling. The Pacific Steamship Co. ("The Admiral Line") of Seattle then bought the steamer from the government and took her North for rebuilding to replace the DOROTHY ALEXANDER on the Seattle to Los Angeles run. Renamed Emma Alexander, she got underway the following year working in tandem with the RUTH ALEXANDER. In addition to passengers, EMMA carried freight in two holds and on deck. Booms on her two masts facilitated the loading. At the time, coastal steamers could compete with the railways for freight and passengers. EMMA ran weekly between Seattle and Southern California until 1935 when the development of coastal roads and added competition from trucks and busses cut profits to nothing and she was laid up with the rest of the Admiral fleet.
The final call to duty came in 1941 when EMMA ALEXANDER was sold to the Canadian Pacific Railroad for war service. Renamed EMPIRE WOODLARK, she served as a troop transport throughout the war and, in 1946, was scuttled off the English coast.
The EMMA wasn't the sleekest of steamers, nor was she the fastest. Her twin buff and black stacks were nearly vertical and her profile was low, austere and business-like. Perhaps her most sculptural feature was her wonderful flat, fantail counter stern with a welded guard to accentuate the curve of the chine. The delicacy of this treatment contrasts strikingly with the rest of her slab-sided hull with its nearly straight sheer line and plumb bow.
She would never rival the beauty of the transoceanic liners or the speed of the Admiral Lines' famous flagship, H. F. ALEXANDER. In spite of this, EMMA dependably delivered many thousands of eager passengers to distant shores. At the end, one historian noted: "This grand old lady sure had some career even if she weren't much to look at".
J. Scott Rohrer 12/17/01