These days, every September and October, cruise ships are (almost literally) an everyday experience for the residents of Bar Harbor. Back in 1914, however, the town was stunned to wake up on August 4th and find a giant ship, 707 feet long and 72 feet wide, anchored just offshore from the Shore Path.
The ship, named for the Duchess Cecilie, Crown Princess of Prussia, was the last of the Four Flyers, speedy passenger liners of the North German Lloyd Company that all were named for royalty and each had four smokestacks. The Cecilie, which had been traveling between Bremen, Germany and New York City since the summer of 1907, was headed east across the Atlantic Ocean from America when, on August 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia.
Carrying a cargo that included $10 million in gold and $3.4 million in silver consigned to European bankers (and worth some $5 million herself), she was told to avoid allied shipping and find a safe harbor as quickly as possible. As the Cecilie steamed back west toward North America — running at top speed without lights, and having disguised her smokestack funnels to resemble the British liner Olympic — Germany declared war on France on August 3rd, then on Belgium August 4th. That same day, England declared war on Germany, which meant the ship could not take refuge in Canada.
Among the 1,216 passengers aboard were a number of Bar Harbor summer residents heading for Europe. One of them, a New York yachtsman named Ledyard Blair who often had sailed in the area, ended up guiding the Cecilie to safe anchorage in Frenchman Bay. After spending three months in Bar Harbor, the ship and crew sailed to Boston in early November, where officials tried to figure out what to do next with her. When America entered the war in 1917, the Cecilie, seized by the American government, became the U.S.S. Mount Vernon, a troop ship carrying men to fight in Europe. She also was offered to the British when World War II began but, judged too old by then, was scrapped in Baltimore in 1940.
FUN FACTS: Sandra Paretti’s novel The Magic Ship, about the Cecilie’s unplanned stay in Bar Harbor, became Germany’s #1 fiction best seller upon its publication there in 1977. Before the Cecilie turned back and began her mad dash to Bar Harbor in 1914, a few of the wealthy American passengers who wanted to continue on to Europe offered to buy the ship, and raise the U.S. flag over it to ensure a safe passage. (Speaking of buying, a ticket to sail across the Atlantic on the Cecilie in those days cost anywhere from $25 to $2,500.)