“Smith Family Continue Tour Around World”

“Smith Family Continue Tour Around World”

On Board S. S. Belgenland.

SS Belgenland
Postcard of the S.S. Belgenland.

On December 21, three days after leaving New York on the S. S. Belgenland, the great pleasure ship anchored in the Harbor of Havana – the very harbor where the Maine was blown up. One deep abiding first impression of Havana is that of a siren city calling to its side with irresistible force. Its beauty is one of both form and color, of sparkle and grace, of friendliness and sentiment that gives it a living vivid personality. There is beauty in Havana at whatever hour she is seen. The “Belgenland” came into the harbor past the grim walls of Morror Castle just after dawn. It was well worth one’s while to rise early and study the lights of the city that appeared along the shore frone [sic] bouelvards. As dawn came on one saw a gorgeous sunrise. Then appeared gradually the profile of the city with its home of pale pinks and blues and greens, like a fairy place created by the illusion of the stage.

Landing at 8:30 in the morning in a large steamer tender, the passengers boarded a fleet of excellent motor cars dispatcher in three groups, each group visiting all points covered by the others. The program of sight-seeing included a 30-mile drive in the City of Havana and its suburbs, stopping at the following points of interest.

The Old Cathedral of Havana, where the ashes of Columbus rested a century and a quarter, up to 1898; the old Plaza de Armas and governor general’s palace; La Feurza, oldest fort in the Americas; the narrow downtown streets of old Havana; the Punta, or fortified point opposite Morror Castle; the Prado or chief Promenade, with Malecon, its shortside park; the president’s palace; the Maine monument, where a wreath was placed by the Belgenland passengers; the Tropical Gardens, where good beer was dispensed; Camp Columbus, where the American army of occupation spread its tents in 1898; and many lesser points of interest.

On returning from the drive the “Belgenland” party lunched at the celebrated Sevilla-Biltmore Hotel. The afternoon and following morning were spent shopping and visiting points of interest not covered on the morning drive. We found the shops in Havana excellent, comparing favorably with the best shops in Europe and small town shops in the States. We found the people kindly, friendly to the stranger, quick as a flash to see and understand the viewpoint of the traveler, and honest withal.

We sailed the next day at 1 P.M. thoroughly happy and satisfied with our visit to the beautiful city of Havana.

The next two and a half days were spent sailing through calm tropic seas. Christmas Eve was fittingly celebrated with a family dinner in the main dining salon, which was beautifully decorated in keeping with the season. A Christmas tree for children, old and young, was set up in the reception room and laden with presents. Professor Earle G. Linsley, of Oakland, California, impersonated Santa Claus. After dinner, there was dancing and a cabaret show on the promenade deck, which was beautifully decorated with colored lights and flags. Ben Bernie’s jazz band furnished the music for the evening. At midnight holy mass was celebrated in the lounge by Rev. O’Leary, of Toronto, Canada.

After this wonderful sail of two and a half days from Havana, the “Belgenland,” the largest passenger vessel to pass annually through the Canal, reached Colon, on the Atlantic side, at daylight Christmas Day and stopped off the city of Colon long enough to take on board health inspection officials. The boat was promptly cleared and proceeded through the Canal, making the run in about seven hours. To describe the Canal properly would take much time and space, but I will try to give you at least a sketchy idea of what we saw in passing.

The Panama Canal is a waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, cut through the narrow neck of land connecting the continents of North and South America.

Entering the Canal from the Atlantic Ocean in Lion Bay, a ship proceeds up a sea level channel seven miles to Gatun, where it is lifted 85 feet by means of a flight of three locks, passing thence into Gatun Lake, an enormous artificially created body of water 164 square miles in area. This lake has been formed by impounding the waters of the Chagres River by means of the great dam at Gatun. This dam is a mile and a half long and about a half mile wide at the bottom. After entering the lake a vessel may go at almost full speed for a distance of 23 miles, where it reaches the entrance to the Culebra Cut, now known as the Gaillard Cut. Speed has to be reduced in passing through the Cut as it is quite narrow, until Pedro Miguel Lock has been reached.

At Pedro Miguel Lock the vessel is lowered 30 feet to the level of Miraflores Lake, a small artificial lake of about two square miles. Passing through Miraflores Lake, the vessel arrives at Miraflores Locks, where it is lowered by two flights 55 feet to the sea level channel on the Pacific side, whence it steams a distance of 8 miles to the deep water in the Pacific Ocean. The total length of the Canal from deep water to deep water is 50 ½ miles.

A person who has not passed through the Canal can have no conception of General Goethal’s task – the engineer who built the Canal – no real estimation of the workings of the great locks; of its ingenious methods of lifting ships to different levels; of its long course through artificial lakes, above the level of the oceans.

One thing that came to the passengers was the beauty and magic charm of the Canal’s natural setting. “I had no idea it was so beautiful” was an expression heard in transit of the Canal. The deep, vivid verdure of islands and hillsides; the colors of flowers amidst the green along the shores; the waving verdure of shoreside banana plantations, each with its palm-thatched house; the purple slopes of the mountains on both sides of the Canal; the model spotless towns in the Canal Zone, and finally, the color and fantastic briskness of life in the cities of Colon and Panama – all these things that one can know and feel only by actual passage of the Canal.

In its historical background the Canal appeals to the imagination as its physical beauty does to the eye. One could not help thinking of the four centuries of wild and bloody romance, mixed with squalor and suffering which made up the history of the Isthmus of Panama until it was taken oven by the Americans in the early part of this century. Such names as Columbus, Balboa, Morgan, Goethals and Gorgas passed through one’s mind. Columbus visited the shores of Panama on his fourth and last voyage in 1502. Balboa crossed the Isthmus about 100 miles to the southeast of the line of the Canal and entered the Pacific in the Gulf of San Miguel. Morgan, who sacked Panama City in 1571, and finally, Goethals and Gorgas, who made that dream of engineers a reality. And we thought of still other names as we glided through this man-made waterway, drawn by “electric mules,” and controlled by the expert handling of a few switches.

The “Belgenland” reached Balboa, the Pacific end of the Canal at 2:30 in the afternoon. Automobiles were waiting to take the tourists for a drive through Balboa, Ancon, Panama City, and old Panama. One of the most interesting ruins still to be seen in Old Panama is an old cathedral in which the passengers under the direction of Dr. S. N. Kent, of Swarthmore, Penna., sang Christmas carols. Dr. Kent then made a few remarks about the romance attached to the story of the Cathedral, the oldest house of Christian worship in the western hemisphere, and said that the privilege of singing Christmas carols there on Christmas Day was one that should evoke the utmost good-will toward the authorities of Panama. The Lord’s Prayer was said by all present, after which we proceeded on our sight-seeing tour, feeling that we had participated in a ceremony unusual in the experience of a modern traveler. I might add that this Cathedral has not rung to the sound of song, secular or sacred, for more than 257 years. Special permission for the ceremony was secured by Captain Clifford Payne, port captain and local manager for the Red Star Line in the Canal Zone from the Alcalde of Panama, who in issuing the permit said he wished officially to thank the passengers of the “Belgenland” for “a graceful gesture demonstrating veneration for things historical.”

From Old Panama we drove to Panama City, stopping at the Church of San Jose. In this church we saw the only known object of value saved from the ruins of Old Panama after its sack by Morgan and his buccaneers, and destruction by fire in 1671. This is a beautiful altar overlaid with gold.

The story is told that the fathers of the church of San Jose in the older city, hearing the buccaneers were marching across the Isthmus to attack Panama, whitewashed the altar until it looked like plaster. When all the rest of Panama was laid in smoking ruins, the church, in which this altar stood, alone was spared, and after the buccaneers had returned to their ships off the Chagres River, on the Atlantic side, and the people who had fled from the city returned, it was found that the altar was intact. Three years later, when the present City of Panama was founded, a new church was built to receive the altar.

From this church we were driven through Ancon Hill, a model American settlement. Here are the United States Army Headquarters, and homes of many Canal employees. This section of Panama is very attractive and beautifully kept up by the Government.

After driving around the City of Panama, we were taken to the Tivoli Hotel, where a dinner was served in truly American fashion. The evening was spent in walking about the city and shopping for Panama hats. The shop-keepers did a thriving business while the tourists were in town, for everyone on board ship came back with at least one Panama hat.

At 10 P.M., the “Belgenland” sailed away from the Canal amidst streamers, confetti and cheers of the crowd which gathered at the pier to see us off. It was a glorious send-off and a tribute to our friendship with the people at the Isthmus of Panama. It was a wonderful Christmas and one never to be forgotten.

Our next stop is Los Angeles and then San Francisco, our last contact with home and country. We are now sailing up the west coast in sight of land practically all the time. This morning we sailed along Mexico and shall continue to do so until January 2, when we expect to reach Los Angeles.

I shall pick up the threads of my story after we leave Los Angeles and shall send you another installment of “High Lights” from the Orient, either Japan or China.


  • “Smith Family Continue Tour Around the World,” Record American (January 8, 1929): 1, 4.

John Žinčak Smith took two of his daughters, Anne and Mary, on a world tour that lasted from December 17, 1928 to May 1, 1929. Their route, as was reported in the Record American, included stops at Havana, Cuba; the Panama Canal; Los Angeles, CA; San Francisco, CA; Honolulu, HI; Manila, Philippines; China; Japan; Siam; Bali (“a primitive land, where white faces are almost unknown”); India; Arabia; the Suez Canal; Alexandria, Egypt; Cairo, Egypt; Jerusalem; Greece; Italy; the Straight of Gibraltar; London, England; and Paris, France (“Banker John Smith to Leave on World Tour,” December 10, 1928).

1929-5-1 - John Smith Passenger List from World Tour
Passenger list from S.S. Belganland indicating the arrival of John Smith (#24) and his daughter Anne Smith (#25) to New York on May 1, 1929.