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FreightWaves Classics/Fallen Flags: Luckenbach Steamship Company was successful for nearly 125 years

The Luckenbach Steamship Company was a long-lived and successful U.S. shipping company. It survived two world wars, but did not survive the industry’s change to container ships…

The company was founded by Lewis Luckenbach in 1850, who began with a single tugboat in New York Harbor. Luckenbach found success by pioneering tug-and-barge transport of coal from Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk was the primary port used to ship coal from the fields and mines of Virginia and West Virginia to cities and towns in New England. 

Luckenbach’s son Edgar became president of the company after the death of his father in 1906. Edgar moved the company’s headquarters to Manhattan. In 1913, he incorporated the company as the Luckenbach Steamship Company, Inc. 

Prior to the U.S. entry into World War I (which occurred in 1917), Luckenbach ordered several new ships for the company’s fleet. One of these ships was the Edgar F. Luckenbach, which he named after himself. (Other ships in the Luckenbach fleet were also named for members of the Luckenbach family.)

The ship was constructed in 1916 by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., of Newport News, Virginia. The ship was chartered by the U. S. Army, and operated with a civilian crew until July 1918. The ship was transferred to the U.S. Navy on July 11, 1918, and commissioned the USS Edgar F. Luckenbach that same day.

Between January 1918 and late 1919, the U.S. Navy’s Naval Overseas Transportation Service operated many ships like the USS Edgar F. Luckenbach. The ships were primarily used to carry supplies to American forces in the European combat zone and then were used to bring Army supplies and equipment back to the United States after the Armistice. 

The ship was decommissioned on October 30, 1919. It was returned to the Luckenbach Steamship Co. at that time. 

Following World War I, Luckenbach made the decision that it was in the company’s best interest to focus on domestic trade. That led to the establishment of terminal facilities at several ports, including Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Mobile and Galveston. In the years between World War I and World War II, Luckenbach was a major force in intercoastal trade along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

World War II and its aftermath

Luckenbach Steamship Company chartered ships from the Maritime Commission and War Shipping Administration during World War II. The company operated Liberty ships, Victory ships, as well as a few Empire ships. 

The Liberty-class of cargo ships were developed to meet British orders for transports to replace ships that had been lost during the war. Although Liberty ships were British in concept, the design was adopted by the U.S. government because of the ships’ simple design and low construction cost.

Eighteen American shipyards built more than 2,700 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945. Liberty ships were mass-produced on an unprecedented scale; the shipyards produced an average of three ships every two days. This was the largest number of ships ever produced to a single design, and Liberty ships symbolized U.S. wartime industrial output.

Victory ships were also cargo ships manufactured in North American shipyards during World War II to replace ships sunk primarily by German submarines. The Victory ships had a more modern design than the Liberty ships, were slightly larger and had more powerful steam turbine engines. The higher speed the Victory ships were able to attain meant that they were used in high-speed convoys and also that they were more difficult targets for German U-boats. More than 500 Victory ships were built between 1944 and 1946.

Empire ships were merchant ships given a name beginning with “Empire” in the service of the Government of the United Kingdom during and after World War II. Most of the Empire ships that were built were used by the Ministry of War Transport, which owned them and contracted their operation to various shipping companies of the British Merchant Navy.

There were two main sources of Empire ships – new construction, and capture and seizure. New Empire ships were built for the MoWT in a British shipyard or in the United States to increase Britain’s shipping capacity and offset losses due to German U-boats, commerce raiders, bombing and other enemy actions. Approximately 4,000 British-flagged ships were sunk between 1939 and 1945.

Other Empire ships were captured or seized from enemy powers and some were acquired by requisition or normal purchase or lease.

Empire ship construction was not restricted to cargo ships. Although there were several classes of freighters that were built, Empire ships also included tankers, aircraft carriers, fast cargo liners, tank landing ships, deep sea salvage and rescue tugboats and several other categories. There were several hundred Empire ships built by the end of the war. 

Edgar F. Luckenbach died in 1943. He was succeeded as the company’s president by his son, Edgar F. Luckenbach, Jr.

Following the conclusion of World War II, Luckenbach Steamship Company (and many other shipping companies) purchased some of the low-cost, surplus cargo ships. 

The 1960s and 1970s

Randolph Sevier, president of the Matson Line, sought to acquire or merge with a number of his company’s competitors in 1960. Among his targets were Isthmian Steamship Company, United States Lines, States Marine Corporation, Luckenbach Steamship Company and others. However, none of Sevier’s negotiations were successful.

The Luckenbach Steamship Company was reorganized by Edgar F. Luckenbach, Jr. during the 1960s. He withdrew ships from the now unprofitable intercoastal trade and redeployed them on the international charter market. Concurrently, Luckenbach increased the company’s shore-side activities. By 1970 the Luckenbach Steamship Company and its affiliates served over 150 ship-owning principals and their vessels on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. 

During the 1960s and early 1970s, many of the Luckenbach Steamship Company’s ships were used to carry supplies to the American military in Vietnam. However, Luckenbach and his company did not make the transition to the growing intermodal container shipping trend, which was started in the mid-1950s by Malcom McLean. 

Because the company failed to upgrade its fleet to container ships, when the United States withdrew from Vietnam it meant the end of the company. The Luckenbach Steamship Company closed in 1974, and all the ships in its fleet were sold or scrapped due to their age.