By Fred Woods
Opelika was once the home of the retired captain of the largest ship afloat, at least in the 1920s, and a Commodore of the United States Lines fleet. United States Lines was a major ocean passenger service and shipping company for many years in the first half of the 1900s.
Herbert Hartley was his name and he was born in Oswego Falls,, NY., on May 28, 1873. Hartley first went to sea at the age of 18 on a three-masted wind-jammer, before sails gave way to steam as a means of propulsion.and rose through the ranks to command level, and, ultimately, captain of the Leviathan, at the time the world’s largest ocean liner. During Captain Hartley’s 35 years at sea, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean nearly 900 times.
And how did Hartley make his way from the Atlantic Ocean to land-locked Opelika, Ala.? He married an Opelika lady. Actually Captain Hartley was married twice, first to Charlotte Adler of Jersey City, NJ. This marriage produced a daughter, Emily Hartley Chatelain, who died in 1945 at the young age of 36.
Following the death of his first wife, Hartley met his second wife, Mary Wear Wilson, the Opelika lady, a passenger on his ship, the SS Mongolia, who was going to England. Their marriage produced a son, Herbert Hartley, Jr., in 1925. Mary Wilson Hartley was the sister of Walter Wilson, a former Opelika postmaster and editor of the Opelika Daily News, which was founded by their father. According to Hartley’s autobiography, he and Mary were married in March 1923, just weeks before he was given command of the Leviathan.
Hartley spent much of his career aboard the liner, SS St. Louis, and had risen to be captain of that ship by 1914. He learned his seamanship and navigation principles from John C. Jamison, a veteran sea captain who Hartley credited with mentoring his rise through the ranks to eventually succeed Jamison as commander of the St. Louis.
When America entered World War I in 1914, the St. Louis was pressed into government service as the USS Louisville and converted into a troop transport. Hartley was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy and sailed his ship, as a part of a convoy, to and from Europe ferrying our troops overseas for combat. Lieutenant Commander Hartley was awarded the Navy Cross, the US Navy’s second highest medal, for his actions during WWI.
After the war, Herbert Hartley served as captain of first the SS Manchuria and then the SS Mongolia. Then, in 1923, he was given command of the Leviathan where he remained until his retirement in 1928. During this period he was also named Commodore of the United States Lines fleet. To be given the dual honor of Commodore of the fleet and captain of the line’s, and the world’s, premier ship was quite an honor, recognizing Hartley as America’s top ocean liner captain.
Leviathan was originally a German- built luxury liner christened Vaterland (or Fatherland) and interned in New York harbor at the onset of World War I. She was stripped down and converted into a troop ship, ferrying as many as 18,000 American soldiers across the Atlantic in a single crossing.
After the war was over and our troops came home the ship, now American property, was restored to her original purpose and renamed. According to a story related by Hartley, the U.S.Shipping Board turned to the First Lady, Mrs. Edith Wilson, for help. She, as Hartley told it, pondered scores of possibilities for weeks and finally asked her husband. Supposedly the president never looked up from his work, but said, “ ‘Leviathan’ … it’s in the Bible … ‘monster of the deep …’” So Leviathan she was, larger, faster and 15,000 tons larger than the Titanic.
As Hartley; with great pride, related, the refitted Leviathan stood eleven stories high from keel to bridge and was 950 feet long, more than three football fields. She was driven by 48 large steam boilers and propelled by four propellers, each with three blades measuring 18 feet from tip to tip. On each round trip across the Atlantic she burned 1,462,300 gallons of oil.
For her roughly 3,400 passengers, fares ranged from $5,000 to $275. Total fares for her maiden voyage ran more than $1,000,000.
Hartley published his autobiography, with the help of Clint Bonner, a reporter for the Birmingham News, in 1953, dealing mainly with his career at sea. He mentions that the United States now (1953) plies the North Atlantic but that the age of ocean passenger travel was already gone as people’s eyes even then were on the skies.
During his tour as ship’s captain Hartley met many interesting people, including Gloria Swanson (in her prime, he says), Will Rogers, President Coolidge, Harry Houdini, Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and Queen Marie of Romania, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world at the time.
In February, 1928, Herbert Hartley had enough of the sea and resigned not only his command of the Leviathan, but from his career as a sea-going man. After a few months of an unsatisfactory business venture, Hartley and Mary bundled up little Herb, Jr., and turned southward, dropping their anchor in Opelika in 1929.
During his years at sea Hartley had occasionally dreamed about a white cottage on a hillside when he finally came ashore. He found it in Opelika. In his words, “I found a spot among tall pines on a hillside. There at las I built the cottage of which I had so long dreamed. On the road that leads to the highway I put a small sign in the shape of a ship in full sail. Below the ship I swung an anchor and on the sign I fashioned the words ‘The Anchorage’.”
We were not able to locate The Anchorage. Hopefully one of our readers can place it. Long-time Opelika resident Jim Turner recalls that the Hartleys, at least Mrs. Hartley, lived in the large house at the corner of 11th Street and Fourth Avenue, Turner also remembers Herbert, Jr. as a student at Clift High School but didn’t really know him as Herbert, Jr. was a year or so younger. We could not find anything about him either.
Captain Harley died on May 9, 1957 in Opelika. Mrs. Hartley lived on in Opelika until her death in 1976. Captain and Mrs. Hartley are buried side-by-side in Garden Hills Cemetery.