S. S. President Cleveland ON THE HIGH SEAS UPDATE!

This is an update to a post done on July 9, 2009. In October of 2014 I received an interesting comment from a reader. The fella has now followed up with a fascinating post of his dangerous voyage. Scroll down to the "UPDATE" to read his harrowing memory.

I can close my eyes and remember standing aboard ship and watching the sun set on the horizon as we sailed to Hawaii, each day feeling the sea breeze grow warmer. I wish I could experience it again. 

These lovely cards are of the S. S. President Cleveland which sailed from San Francisco to Asia and back again. I believe these date to the later 50s to early 60s. 

S.S. President Cleveland_front_postcardtatteredandlost
S.S. President Cleveland_postcard front_tatteredandlost
S.S. President Cleveland_back_postcard_tatteredandlost
Click on images to see them larger.

The S. S. President Cleveland was part of the American President Lines. 
In 1938 the U.S. Government took over the management of the Dollar Steamship Co. which was in financial difficulties and transferred their assets to the newly formed American President Line. The company operated trans-Pacific and round-the-world services, but the war in Europe disrupted services and after the entry of the United States into the war, all the company's ships were taken over for war duties. After the war, only two ships were returned to the round-the-world service and two new ships were built 1947-48 for the trans-Pacific route. Further ships were later added to the fleet, but by 1972 only the PRESIDENT CLEVELAND (2) and PRESIDENT WILSON (2) were sailing as passenger ships and both were withdrawn from service the following year. The company still trades as a cargo company. (SOURCE: The Ships List)
To see photos of the interior click on this link to the site Cruising the Past. And to read a complete history of the lines click here for Wikipedia. Unfortunately I can't find any information about either illustrator.

I hope this bit of ephemera brings back memories to those who sailed the high seas in style and gives those who didn't a moment to pause and dream.

You expressed interest in hearing a story about an incident that I wrote about on your blog 10/03/14 concerning an incident aboard the SS President Cleveland in 1972.

Well here it is. I wrote this out this morning in an email to a friend. Post it to your heart's content.

Enjoy!...........John Bengtson in White Salmon, Wa

The SS President Cleveland was launched sometime in 1946 but the hull was laid down in 1944. It was designed by war time standards, meaning that there wasn't much consideration for the comfort of the crew. And because of this the jobs were fairly easy to get, even for a junior member of the union. Around 1971 with the cutback to military supplies going to Viet Nam, shipping became very tight and many seaman quit going to sea altogether.

I took the call and joined the ship in San Pedro around World Series time, carefully timed because I knew that no one wanted to take a call and miss the series. I shipped as Evaporator Maintenance Man and was assigned the 12-4 watch.

The ship was near the end of it's life and most everyone knew that. Just enough maintenance to keep her going one more trip. The Black Gang (unlicensed engine dept) was nearly 40 men. My foc'sle (room) had 3 of us crammed in there, some of the Stewards Dept. were 6 to a room. And of course there was no air conditioning.

Pretty fun crew though. Quite a few people near my age. My watch engineer was in his mid 20's. In hot weather we used to sneak up to the 2nd class swimming pool after morning watch and take a dip, knowing that it would mean getting fired if we were caught. And we joked amongst ourselves that was the only way that we would be able to quit the ship.

The Cleveland was turbo-electric propulsion and had 2 engine rooms. Steam drives the turbine which drives a huge alternator which, through huge wires, drives the motors at the propellers. This made for a strange engine room layout. Normally a turbine would be perfectly amid-ship, but being that there was no shaft connecting the turbine reduction gearing to the propeller, and hence no shaft alley, the turbine was set was on the starboard side of the engine room. Boilers were situated fore and aft with opposing
 furnace fronts and air registers facing each other on the port side of the plant. My evaporators were on the 2nd deck level with the steam drums and further outboard of the boilers. There was a metal grate connecting the evap flat with the rest of the engine room running tightly between the boilers. And a ladder (steep stairway) to the deck below. Over head on the evap flat was the ducting, 2 aprox. 4'x6' ducts which brought the forced draft air to the boiler, and directly overhead was a point where the 2 ducts joined together briefly with a flapper valve in between (? diverter?)with a mechanical handle which would allow 1 forced draft fan to supply both boilers in case of emergency.

When I joined the ship I couldn't help but notice some unsafe conditions, particularly one that led to the event which I'll get to in a minute. The fuel oil to the boilers goes through an automatic solenoid shut-off valve which will stop the flow of fuel to the boiler in the event the forced draft fans overload and stop supplying air to the boiler. And these solenoid valve handles were held open by bricks to prevent them from false tripping.

Somewhere on route to San Francisco from Honolulu on the 12-4 afternoon watch that is exactly what happened. Charlie Reis fireman/watertender, Arthur Rudy watch 3rd asst.engineer, and myself were chatting in the fireroom when all of a sudden heavy black smoke began to pour from the air registers on one of the boilers. What had been another uneventful watch quickly became a serious situation. And the sequence of events gets a bit hazy from here. First was Rudy's attempt to restart the forced draft fan, to no success. I ran up the ladder to my evap flat and tried to open up the diverter (flapper) where the 2 ducts joined so as to supply air to both boilers from 1 fan. The handle wouldn't burge, probably rusted shut from years of disuse. All the while the fireroom is filling up with black smoke. And then the other fan quit and smoke was pouring out of both boiler fronts and the boilers started "panting".

Has anyone ever seen a wood stove pant? The draft gets a certain pulsation going and the whole stove seems to expand and contract with a corresponding whoosh-whoosh sound. It's scary when a wood stove does this and it's really scary when a boiler, something as big as a cabin, pants.

At this point both boilers were panting. My last image of the fireroom through the smoke was of Charlie Reis shutting off the oil to these panting boilers. Charlie was a huge man, probably 6'5", big enough to reach the oil valves on each boiler at the same time. He was literally trying to hang on to the valves while these cabin sized boilers were panting.

Things were happening pretty fast. At this point, I decided that I should secure the steam to my evaporator so I ran up the ladder to my evaporator and began closing a big steam valve with a 3' valve wheel. At this point the 1st asst. engineer showed up on the grate between the boilers and started screaming "WHAT'S GOING ON?" Every fireman is taught to always keep an eye on the gauge glass which indicates the water level in the boiler. For some reason I looked at the gauge glass on one of the boilers and didn't see a level. I yelled to the 1st "CHECK THE GLASS,CHECK THE GLASS!". What appeared to be water level below the level of the glass was actually water in the steam drum higher than the glass, too high a water level. The 1st asst. ran down to the feed water pump and over rode the pump, pumping more water into an already full boiler.

I was still turning this big valve wheel to shut off steam to my evaporator when the explosion occurred. I was about 20' away from where the steam lines from the 2 boilers join to form the main steam line to the turbine.

The next thing that I remember was being on my knees at the bottom of the ladder next to the fireroom. Black smoke was pouring out of the fireroom now, too thick to see Charlie anymore. I took off running around the back of the boiler towards the other side of the engine room where there was a ladder going up to the operating platform. It was extremely loud and getting hot fast. I was thinking I could still get out. When I got to the ladder, the Chief, 1st asst. and the watch engineer were coming down. It was getting too hot up there. My watch engineer Rudy was hysterical and in tears. And remember that this ship didn't have a shaft alley, so no shaft alley escape.

I was once told that in the event of a major steam explosion you might live if you immerse yourself in the bilge water. And pray.

What had happened was when the water level in the full boiler carried over to where the 2 steam lines met, that water meeting the steam exploded and it blew out the gasket at the joint. 475# steam escaping through the area in the joint where the gasket had been.

The Chief Engineer, before coming down, had fully opened up the throttle to drain the steam off into the turbine. But still no Charlie. When I last saw him he had been closing off the fuel oil to the boilers. It was finally sinking in what had just happened in the course of about 5 minutes. And then Charlie appeared, covered in black soot. If he hadn't gotten the oil shut off we might have all suffocated.

Eventually it cooled down enough so we could get out through the top of the engine room. I had another evaporator in the other engine room to take care of, but the rest of that engine room watch was off for the rest of the watch. Within a day the repairs were made and we were back to 2 engine rooms.

I don't usually tell this story in this much detail because there's another point here, a real twist. We arrived in San Francisco 2 days later. The SF Bay Area had a brand new transit system, BART, and I took the train to visit my father in the East Bay. My sister was staying with my Dad while attending college in Hayward and she answered the door when I arrived. Her first question was "where have you been the last two days"? I told her that I we had just arrived that afternoon and she repeated what she had asked before, and asked what I might be hiding, not quite calling me a liar. When I asked her why she thought that I had arrived home 2 days prior, she told me that she heard me calling her name, over and over. She had been typing at her desk and said that it sounded urgent, as if I was holding packages that I was about to drop and needed someone to open the door for me. She ran out through the garage and I wasn't there. Next she ran to the front door, which we rarely used, and I wasn't their either. And then back through the garage and out into the street calling my name.

Things settled down and I convinced her that I was telling the truth. She was so sure that she had heard me calling her name. Then it dawned on me that we had had this incident on the ship 2 days before and at that one point, between being blown down that ladder and coming to on my knees, I had no recollection. I asked my sister what time this all happened and it matched perfectly considering the time change coming from Hawai'i.

Did I mention that I was scared? You bet I was.

                   John Bengtson in White Salmon

                   Marine Firemen's Union, JM-3736  1969- 1978
Thank you John! What a vividly told story. I felt as if I was watching a movie. 


  1. wow, glad I caught up with this. amazing story. chills.

    1. Isn't it fun how a nearly forgotten post can end up with new life thanks to another persons story. I'm really happy John wrote this and allowed me to post it.