Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

*InsightCan it be 100 years since the first cruise from Florida?

Yes it can, according to The Cruise People, a London travel firm that has identified the Key West steamship Evangeline as the first true cruise ship to depart a Florida port in 1913.

With its prominent, upright funnel and boxy profile, the 3,678-ton Evangeline resembled nothing so much as a smaller version of the Titanic, lost in the icy North Atlantic nine months earlier.

That same year, 1912, Henry Flagler’s ambitious extension of the Florida East Coast Railway to Key West was completed. Then, as now, leisure cruises depended on land-based transportation links to prosper.*TomStieghorst 

But in 1913 railroads, not airlines, brought distant tourists to the departure terminal. The Evangeline was owned by the Peninsular & Occidental Steamship Co, a joint venture between Flagler and his Florida railroad rival Henry Plant (P&O eventually went on to own a modern cruise subsidiary, today's Princess Cruises). The ship was built in Scotland, at the same shipyard that later built the former Carnival Cruise Lines ship Carnivale. 

The Evangeline did a series of eight 11-night cruises, visiting Havana, Kingston, Jamaica, and Colon, Panama, to see the canal, then still under construction.

The fare for the initial season was $110, but that went up to $125 in 1914 when the homeport moved to Jacksonville, Fla.

Today Jacksonville is still a homeport, hosting the 70,367-ton Carnival Fascination. Key West, which will serve as port of call for nearly 300 cruise ships this year, is no longer a home port, its rail connection wiped out by the 1935 hurricane.

Miami, which didn’t receive a regular leisure cruise route until 1935 when ships began going to Nassau, Bahamas, is now the biggest cruise port, not only in Florida but worldwide. Port Everglades and Port Canaveral are second and third. Each is connected to an international airport (in the case of Port Canaveral, buses take passengers from Orlando International Airport).

And now, as then, Florida remains central to the cruise business. The industry’s biggest convention, Cruise Shipping Miami, will open next week at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

According to CLIA, Florida accounted for 40% of the industry’s passenger and crew visits in North America and 35% of direct expenditures.  No. 2 California had about one-tenth as many passenger visits, CLIA says.

The Evangeline was scrapped in 1936, succeeded by the Florida, which by 1952 was doing two-night cruises from Miami to Havana for $42 plus taxes. That all ended eight years later. And for the past half century the cruise industry has prospered in Florida, going almost everywhere but the port of call 90 miles to the south.   

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