The Many Faces of RMS Queen Mary and the Melting Pot of New York Harbor

Authored by Kyle Brinster

The British ocean liner RMS Queen Mary entering New York Harbor in June 1936.

Ocean liners like the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Queen Mary have a long history and deep connection with New York City. Beginning with the British government’s grant to Samuel Cunard “for the carriage of mail by steamship across the North Atlantic in 1838” (Pike 2018, 59), both passengers and merchants moving cargo used the ships scheduled arrival and departure times to reliably navigate across the world’s oceans.

Queen Mary began service in the 1930s by capturing the highly prized Blue Riband, awarded to ships that made the fastest transatlantic crossing between Southampton and New York City. More than a race or a marketing promotion, this was a source of national pride. Aside from her speed, Queen Mary was known for her ornate furnishings and famous clientele. Catering primarily to a privileged elite, luminaries from Winston Churchill to Audrey Hepburn can be found on passenger manifests (Queen Mary 2019).

At the outbreak of World War II Great Britain’s massive commercial fleet was repurposed for wartime. “The Grey Ghost”, as she was known, proved more than up to the task; she set “the record for carrying the most passengers on one vessel – 16,082 American troops in 1942 as part of the build-up for D-Day” (Flono 2014). Ocean liners like Queen Mary were essential to the war effort, carrying over 325,000 American and Canadian troops thousands of miles during the final two years of the conflict (Niderost 2018).

The ship’s glamorous guests and immaculate service record can hide another group dependent on ocean liners for their livelihood: the sailors and longshoreman of New York City’s busy port. Their role on the front lines of trade, coupled with an utter dearth of financial security, left them exposed to technological and economic trends of the 20th century. Groups like the Seamen’s Church Institute had long provided resources and support (Seamen’s Church 2016), but by the 1950s, adaption of automated work functions and the explosion of “containerized cargo…signaled a radical transformation of the maritime cargo transportation industry” (Mello 2011, 132). The post-war period marked the end of New York Harbor’s economic heyday and the rise of its turbulent labor movement. So while passengers ogled the intricate inlay aboard RMS Queen Mary, these men “crippled the Port of New York as gangs of longshoremen walked off the docks” (ILA 2019), displaying the gulf of inequality present at New York Harbor that echoes across the city itself.

Retired in 1967, Queen Mary lives on as a unique maritime attraction in Long Beach, California, serving as a hotel, event space, and a museum all rolled into one (International Churchill Society, n.d.). Its fate as a Disney-fied tourist trap obscures just how important ocean liners like Queen Mary were to global economic development. Foreign merchants, celebrities, soldiers returning home, and longshoremen alike depended on these ships to provide fast and reliable service across hostile seas; the RMS Queen Mary impacted hundreds of thousands of lives, both directly and indirectly, and remains an example of our interconnected past.



Flono, Fannie. 2014. “D-Day, WWII and the Queen Mary.” The Charlotte Observer, June 5.

The International Churchill Society. n.d. “Queen Mary.” Accessed March 17, 2019.

International Longshoremen’s Association. 2019. “Overview of ILA History.” Accessed March 30.

Mello, William J. 2011. New York Longshoremen: Class and Power on the Docks. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Niderost, Eric. 2018. “Voyages to Victory: RMS Queen Mary’s War Service.” Warfare History Network, December 13.

Pike, Dag. 2018. Taming the Atlantic: The History of Man’s Battle With the World’s Toughest Ocean. Barnsley: Pen and Sword.

The Queen Mary. 2019. “Celebrities and Political Dignitaries.” Accessed March 17.

Seamen’s Church. 2016. “History of the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.” Last modified March 23.