All Aboard the S.S. Metapan: The Boston Chamber of Commerce 1913 Trip to Panama

by Laura Kintz, Audiovisual Metadata Cataloger

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KFC1567N. S.S. Metapan at Port © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

On April 24, 1913, the S.S. Metapan departed Boston’s Long Wharf for a journey south, to destinations in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Operated by the United Fruit Company, a Boston-based trade enterprise, the Metapan’s stops included Jamaica, Colombia, and the site of a major engineering feat of the 20th century: the Central American country of Panama, where construction of the Panama Canal was nearly complete. On board the steamship were members of the Boston Chamber of Commerce, who hoped to use the opportunity to expand their business interests in those areas and to view the new Panama Canal. Joining the Chamber of Commerce party were Mayor of Boston, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, and his 22-year-old daughter, Rose.

Rose Fitzgerald, later Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and the mother of President John F. Kennedy, documented this trip in photographs that are now part of the Kennedy Family Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. With generous grant support from the Fund II Foundation, staff at the Kennedy Library has recently cataloged photographs from this collection, digitized from nitrate negatives, and made them available online. Images from the trip, sampled below, provide a record of a voyage that Rose called, “a wonderfully enjoyable trip, filled with interesting and beneficial incidents.” 1

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KFC239N. S.S. Metapan Prepares to Depart from the United Fruit Company Terminal at Long Wharf © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
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KFC250N. Spectators at United Fruit Company Terminal © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
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KFC1585N. Mayor John F. Fitzgerald with Boston Chamber of Commerce Party Aboard S.S. Metapan © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
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KFC1583N. Rose Fitzgerald Aboard S.S. Metapan © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

After a week of sailing, the Metapan’s first stop was Jamaica, where it docked in the seaside capital city of Kingston. This trading hub was the site of an outpost of the British-based Elder Dempster and Company, a shipping company that was involved in the Jamaican banana trade. Its terminal is visible in the background at center of the photograph below, taken from aboard the Metapan.

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KFC241N. View of Port in Kingston, Jamaica © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

Rose and her fellow travelers also visited Harbour Street in downtown Kingston, pictured below. While her father was focused on building relationships among businessmen, Rose took a special interest in the women whom she encountered in Kingston and the other locations she visited, describing them as, “noble, honest, hardworking women.” 2 This photograph features some of these women, as well as the building that housed the offices of Jamaica’s principal newspaper, the Gleaner.

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KFC251N. Harbour Street, Kingston, Jamaica © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

After their stop in Jamaica, the Chamber of Commerce party set sail for Panama. Upon their arrival, Rose took in the sights of downtown Colón, posing near the intersection of Fifth Street and Bolivar Avenue (seen in the first photograph below). The party then boarded a train for a rail tour of the country, en route to the construction site of the Panama Canal and its system of locks, which were less than a year away from completion. Rose, Mayor Fitzgerald, and the rest of the party were able to view the construction of the “triple flight” of locks located in the small canal-side town of Gatun. Rose documented their tour with photographs of workers on scaffolding, her fellow travelers standing atop the locks, and the view looking down into one of the massive locks. The visitors were impressed by the construction, with Mayor Fitzgerald telling the New York Times, “the work on the Canal was very far advanced.” 3

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KFC248N. Rose Fitzgerald in Colón, Panama © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
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KFC252N. Boston Chamber of Commerce Party Aboard Train Car in Colón, Panama © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
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KFC253N. View of Countryside in Panama © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
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KFC254N. Unidentified Boy Stands on Train Tracks in Panama © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
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KFC1576N. Construction of Gatun Locks at Panama Canal © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
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KFC1575N. Boston Chamber of Commerce Party Views Gatun Locks © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
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KFC1572N. View of Gatun Locks © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

From Panama, the party traveled southeast to Colombia, stopping in the cities of Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Santa Marta. Some of the photographs in this collection may depict Colombia, but at this stage, no specific locations have been identified.

Following the visit to Colombia, the party split; Rose, Mayor Fitzgerald, and about 20 of their fellow passengers began the voyage back to Boston aboard the Metapan, while the remaining travelers continued down the South American coast. The longer trip continued for more than two months, via both land and sea, and included stops in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

Upon their arrival back in Boston on May 16, 1913, both Rose and Mayor Fitzgerald expressed positive feelings about the trip. The Boston Daily Globe quoted the Mayor as stating, “The opportunities for business between this and these South American countries are unlimited and we must take advantage of them all.” Honey Fitz also commented on the necessity of teaching Spanish to young men in school to aid them in succeeding in the export business. Rose, for her part, echoed her previous impressions of the women whom she encountered, telling the Globe, “I hope that while the men are seeking to develop the trade interests with the men of these countries, our women will endeavor to strengthen relations with and to aid in the uplifting of the women of these countries.” 4

To read Rose Fitzgerald’s travel journal and view her photo album, please contact the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library’s Research Room.

To view other photographs from this trip, visit the online catalog using the links below:

Boston Chamber of Commerce Tour of Panama, John F. Fitzgerald, Rose Fitzgerald, others, 1913: April-May

Boston Chamber of Commerce Tour of Panama, Scenes, 1913: April-May

 

Footnotes:

  1. “Wants Boys in Export Trade: Mayor Fitzgerald Plans Spanish Trading,” Boston Daily Globe, May 16, 1913, p. 2.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Canal Work Far Advanced,” New York Times, May 16, 1913, p. 6.
  4. “Wants Boys in Export Trade,” p. 2.

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