The United States enjoy a somewhat unique position in that they are geographically situated between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and where the 19th century was directed almost entirely towards interactions across the Atlantic the 20th century would see the Pacific rise to almost equal prominence thanks in large part to the Panama Canal and the western search for both resources and markets in the east. That the Canal and the World War both opened in 1914 was, in large part, coincidental and their effect on one another was more peripheral than direct but by 1918 the Canal would become one of the many factors that would see the “new” world replace the “old” as the locus of commerce and power globally.
On June 28, 1914 the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated as the result of a Serbian, Muslim and Russian conspiracy which led directly to the declaration of war by the Austria-Hungarian empire on Serbia on the 28th of July and on Russia on August 6th. Germany, allied with Austria-Hungary, but largely for geopolitical reasons of its own invaded France on August 2 and Belgium on August 3. Great Britain, nominally allied with Russia, but also largely for geopolitical reasons of her own – especially German colonial encroachments in Africa and the far east, declared war on Germany on August 4. With a weather eye for political consequences Woodrow Wilson kept the United States neutral until he could recover from the 63 seat loss in the House in the mid-term elections of 1914 and secure another term for himself in 1916 – campaigning on the slogan, He kept us out of the war! – and did not maneuver us into the war until one month after his second inauguration.
One of the first indications of how the war might impact shipping was an announcement in the Galveston Daily News of August 16, 1914 that American interests were considering the purchase of Hamburg American Line vessels – including the ss Vaterland [the largest steamer in the world] – many of which had been tied up at Hoboken since the hostilities between Great Britain and Germany had started. Of more immediate importance to Galveston was the news that 180 German passengers had arrived on the Mallory Line steamer Huron since the German flagged Brandenburg had not been allowed to make the trip. Interestingly the Huron was scheduled to sail from Galveston to New York on August 19th with accommodations for 301 first-class passengers, large airy staterooms, broad open promenades, social halls and smoking rooms – First Class, $45.00; third class, $22.50. The paper also carried and announcement from the Fowler and McVitie agency that, Immediately the Panama Canal is opened a frequent service will be maintained in connection with the regular fifteen day service from New York.
To recognize the true importance of the Panama Canal consider the voyage from Galveston to China [Shanghai]. Going via the new canal the trip took 42 days versus either 58 days via Suez, 63 days via Good Hope or 72 days via Cape Horn. The Galveston Daily News of August 16, 1914 carried an advertisement for the new South Atlantic, Gulf and Orient Line with service from Galveston to Japan and China as cargo offers and on August 17th, under the Movements Ocean Vessels reports, the ss Eburna is reported as leaving Port Eads, Louisiana for Yokohama, Japan via the Panama Canal – the first such report we have found.
Appropriately, or maybe ironically, eburna is a genus of sea snails in the family Olividae because steaming at 10 knots by the most direct route this trip would have taken 38 days. Unfortunately the steamships of this age did not carry sufficient coal which produced only about two-thirds the energy that oil-fired boilers would while occupying thirty percent more space so the likely route for the ss Eburna was South Pass to Canal Zone to Los Angeles to Honolulu to Yokohama which would have added four days and 1,000 miles steaming to the trip. For John W. Young the so-called slow boat to China would have been even slower with a routing through Samoa and Manila that would have covered nearly 13,000 nautical miles and would have taken 54 days!
When you review a map of territorial acquisitions by the United States it comes readily evident that Alaska, interestingly enough Midway which was acquired in 1867, and Hawaii were all centered around the northern Pacific whaling fleet and trade between San Francisco and the orient, primarily Japan. Once China was opened to western trade the southern islands of Guam, Samoa, Tutulia and the Philippines became necessary fueling and repair stations first for naval vessels and then for the commerce that followed the flag and the fleet. Where goods had come from the far east in car loads they now came into Galveston by shiploads and added to the tonnage from the war effort the Port would work seven days a week until the 1920’s enjoying an unprecedented prosperity..