Royal Mail Steam Packet Company
In 1843 the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (RMSPC), operating under a royal charter issued in 1839, selected St. Thomas in the Danish Virgin Islands as the hub of all its operations in the northern West Indies, bringing a new prosperity to this Danish colony
The harbor of St. Thomas is probably the finest natural harbor in the West Indies. Formed by an extinct volcano crater, it is protected on all sides, with a narrow opening to the south, and a consistent depth of ten meters. To promote this advantage, the Danish government in St. Thomas was highly supportive of international commerce. Besides exempting RMSPC vessels from all duties, they also undertook reconditioning of navigation aids in the harbor. All of this activity conferred a substantial new economic benefit on St. Thomas. With the successful negotiation of a new contract with the Admiralty in 1850, St. Thomas was selected as the hub for all of the RMSPC activities in the West Indies.
The larger steam vessels made the crossing from England and met smaller ships in the harbor in St. Thomas for transferring mail, passengers and freight bound for other locations in the West Indies, the
St. Thomas Harbor © 1850 with 2 RMSPC steamships. Original painting in Elsinore Castle, Denmark
Gulf of Mexico and Central America, or returning to England. To accommodate this ship traffic, the company maintained eight moorings in the harbor.
By 1852, the Company had purchased its own coaling premises in St. Thomas, and made significant improvements to its wharfs. Harbingers of misfortune were not absent, however. In the early 1850's, the dreaded yellow fever struck St. Thomas, affecting many of the passengers and crews of RMSPC. On the return voyage of La Plata in 1852, nine passengers died. This resulted in significant additional costs to RMSPC in lost revenues, additional crew expenditures, and the delays of quarantine. In 1860 the Danish government, at the instigation of the RMSPC undertook the cutting of a channel to separate Hassel Island from the mainland, in order to improve circulation and the cleanliness of the harbor. So many deaths were occurring from the fever that the stay in St. Thomas was reduced to a minimum. Late in 1866, the fever again reached epidemic proportions, the first outbreak in 8 years. RMSPC temporarily moved its transfer operations for passengers, coal and cargo to Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands, a small, uninhabited island approximately 15 miles east of St. Thomas. Thus the stage was set for the worst disaster in many years to strike the Virgin Islands.
In 1865, the newest and finest steam ship in the fleet was put in service, the Rhone. On October 29, 1867, the Rhone together with the inter-island steamers, were
RMS Rhone and inter-island steamer
meeting at Peter Island to effect homeward transfers to the Rhone when a hurricane struck. This was the first hurricane to hit St. Thomas since 1837. The resulting devastation both to the islands and to RMSPC was severe. At Peter Island, the Rhone was sunk with the loss of 108 crew members, including the captain, and 15 out of 16 passengers. The wreck of the Rhone is now one of the favorite dive spots in the Virgin Islands, and was the setting for the movie "The Deep". One other steam ship was washed on shore and later recovered. All of the coal stock was washed away. The Solway and the Tyne were dismasted. In St. Thomas harbor, fifty-eight out of sixty vessels were sunk. The RMS Wye escaped the harbor but was totally lost on Buck Island, just two miles offshore. Wharves, premises, coal hulks, lighters and coal were destroyed or swept away. This was followed in less than a month by a tsunami, which again swept the harbor and washed away all of the coal which had just been re-stocked.
This was the beginning of the end for the prosperity of St. Thomas. The two decades following 1850 proved to be the peak of its commercial traffic until the advent of cruise ships in the 1970's. In 1872 RMSPC moved its main transfer point to Barbados, out of the hurricane belt, and less fever ridden than St. Thomas. By 1885, St. Thomas had been completely abandoned as a transfer station. While the Company maintained a presence in St. Thomas with its repair facilities, and even as late as 1929 owned a coaling company in St. Thomas, it was no longer a major supporter of the economy. The only traces left of this once important commerce are some ruins on Hassel Island, the occasional artifact from the harbor, and the wrecks of the Wye and the Rhone.
Distinguishing flags of the ships of the RMSPC, including the Wye and the La Plata
Passengers on the deck of a sistership to the RMS Wye
During the period from the early 1840s until well into the 1900s, coaling steamships was a major operation in the harbor, much of this activity occurring on Hassel Island. The coal was imported on sailing vessels, which although slow, were much more economical to operate than the steamships.
Underwater remains of the RMS Wye off Buck Island near the harbor of Charlotte Amalie.
Underwater wreckage of the RMS Wye
Underwater wreckage of the RMS Wye
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