The future of the legendary Queen Mary ocean liner is in question, as Eagle Hospitality Trust, the company that operates it as a tourist attraction, has filed for bankruptcy protection.
Permanently docked in Long Beach, California for over 50 years, the ship is a one-of-a-kind artifact, the sole preserved survivor of a time when grand ocean liners criss-crossed between America and Britain.
With sleek lines and art deco decor, the 1,019.4 foot-long, 81,237 gross-ton Queen Mary from the Cunard/White Star Line was built for both luxury and speed. She won the ‘Blue Riband’ — awarded annually to the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic — in 1936, the year she was launched.
Over the next three decades, the ship played a major role in World War II, as well as spending many years carrying passengers in three classes of comfort between New York and London.
The Fastest Ship On The Sea
From 1938 to 1952, the Queen Mary held the Atlantic crossing record, with an average speed of 31.69 knots (36.47 mph). In 1952, she was finally beaten by the then-new SS United States.
A victim of the jet age, the ship’s maritime career ended in 1967 as she completed her 1,000th crossing of the North Atlantic. Over a three-decade run, she carried a total of 2,112,000 passengers more than 3,792,227 miles.
The city of Long Beach had the bold idea of buying and permanently docking the Queen Mary as a tourist attraction. Based for its lifetime on the Atlantic, the ship had no connection to the city and had never before visited the Los Angeles area.
Nevertheless, Long Beach officials had a vision, and it proved to be prescient. In 1967, just about everyone knew the story of this elegant liner, and for many years the experience of touring the ship, enjoying a meal, or staying overnight in a stateroom made it a top Southern California attraction.
Still, this isn’t the first time the Queen Mary has faced a threat due to fragile finances. The difficulty of preserving and maintaining the ship on the limited income from tourist visits, special events, and port charges on cruise ship passengers has been a long-term problem. The city has leased the ship to various operators; most have struggled financially.
Preserving Ocean Liners Is A Costly Challenge
“This is just the latest in an unfortunately long line of operators who either did not understand the basics of operating such a unique entity, or who fell on hard times due to external circumstances, in this latest case, COVID-19, or both,” ocean liner historian and journalist Peter Knego told Cruise Radio.
“The challenges with preserving ocean liners is never the cost in purchasing them, but converting and properly maintaining them for their static afterlife,” Knego added. “Because of her size and complex architecture, she is an ongoing project that always requires repair work, much like the Golden Gate Bridge is never finished getting painted.”
As reported by the Long Beach Post, in 2015 a study commissioned by the city determined the ship required $289 million in urgent repairs, but it was only able to raise $23 million, a fraction of the need. In 2016, the city awarded Los Angeles-based real estate investment firm Urban Commons a 66-year lease to run the ship.
Three years later, Urban Commons created Eagle Hospitality as a real estate investment trust to be listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange, with the goal of raising funds for a $250 million development project that would see 65 acres of waterfront property around the dry-docked ship become an ‘entertainment destination,’ with restaurants, bars, sports facilities, a 200-room hotel, and other attractions.
The project has bogged down, and Eagle Hospitality Trust was in financial trouble prior to its recent bankruptcy filing, defaulting on a $341 million bank loan in 2019.
Can This Grand Old Lady Be Saved?
Adding to the current woes for the Queen Mary is the fact it has been closed to visitors since May 2020 due to the global pandemic. And the modern Carnival Cruise Line ships that share the harbor have been absent since last March, cutting off another source of income.
So what’s the future for this grand old lady of the sea?
It seems unthinkable that such a twentieth-century icon could be allowed to waste away. This is a vessel that during World War II was stripped of its luxurious decor, painted gray, and used to transport troops and prisoners of war. To this day, it retains the record for the greatest number of persons on one vessel, at 16,683, and it’s unmatched speed enabled it to outrun Hitler’s U-boats.
Winston Churchill, who traveled on the ship several times, is said to have made his D-Day plans while lying in the bathtub of his suite. He’s also said to have claimed that her contribution shortened the war by a year.
There are also many stories that the ship is haunted by prisoners of war, crew members, and other passengers who passed away on the ship. An annual month-long Halloween event called ‘Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor’ has become one of the ship’s biggest attractions.
John Keisler, the City of Long Beach’s Economic Development Director, told the Long Beach Post that he’s confident another operator will take on the challenge of operating the Queen Mary if bankruptcy takes Eagle Hospitality Trust out of the picture. He says the development potential of the surrounding property is key to the ship’s future.
“She Put Long Beach On The Map”
“The reason they’re willing to take this on is because of the opportunity for real estate development on the waterfront of Southern California,” he told the Post. “And we think we’ll get it, either with this group or another group, depending on the outcome of these next few weeks.”
Knego, who runs the website midshipcentury.com, says the Queen Mary is irreplaceable.
“She put Long Beach, then a run down port city, on the map when they acquired her and despite her having had some challenging periods, stands to this day as their mascot and is the highlight of their waterfront and skyline,” Knego said.
“She most certainly can be saved if the proper investment and work is done but it will take a great deal of money and a well thought plan to do so. She might never technically make that money back as a short term investment but having her in Long Beach helps the city’s overall economy and gives people a reason to visit. Having her there is like having the Statue of Liberty in New York. She is a treasure that absolutely must be preserved.”