In the inter-War years, one of the best-known names on the transatlantic routes between the Adriatic ports and the Americas was that of the Cosulich Line. Their two most glamorous ships were the sister motor vessels Saturnia and Vulcania, both of which had long and varied histories: their careers spanned over four decades and they had several successful roles in peace and in war as ocean liners, war transports, hospital ships and cruise ships. Indeed, their names are still well-remembered in Italy and abroad, above all in Trieste where the Cosulich Line had its headquarters and was recognised as one of the city’s great enterprises.The company was founded in the early XIX century by the Italian-mother tongue Cosulich family from Lussino, one of the islands of the Quarnero archipelago, at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. As with the majority of the citizens of Lussino, the family’s activities were mainly connected with the sea and, in 1852, the brothers Antonio Felice, Gaspare and Marco Cosulich bought the second-hand tall ships Gloria and Marco which had been launched from a Trieste yard a decade earlier. They also ordered a third, larger two-masted sailing ship from a shipyard in Fiume and named her Elena Cosulich after their mother. In 1855, owing to the Crimean War, the French and the English found it necessary to charter any suitable vessel which was available for the transport of men and materiel and the Cosulich ships were employed almost exclusively in this way for nearly two years: the very high charter rates which they were able to obtain enabled the brothers to enlarge their fleet and expand their business.
A few years later, Alberto, Calisto, Fausto and Marco, sons of Antonio Felice, entered the family business and in 1899, at their father’s suggestion, they moved to “the town”, Trieste. At that time, business at the chief port of the Giulian region was in full swing: after the opening of the Suez Canal it became the “Gate to the Far East”, one of the largest and best-equipped ports in the Mediterranean and, indeed, elsewhere. Trieste was a leading emporium for merchants, insurers, shipowners and other people connected with the shipping trades.
In 1889, upon their arrival in Trieste, Antonio Felice’s sons immediately bought their first steamer, the British-built Elena Cosulich which was followed a couple of years later by a larger steamship which they named after their father. The Elena Cosulich and Antonio Felice Cosulich were soon followed by a further nine vessels (four of which were steel-hulled sailing ships) which were employed in the tramp trades (i.e. they did not ply regular, scheduled routes but sailed wherever charterers or forwarders requested).
The port of Trieste crowded with steamers in 1912
1901 was a turning point for the family shipping business: besides running a fleet of 15 steamships, many of which were of recent construction, they now took control of an important local shipping company, the Austro-Americana. This concern had been founded in Trieste in 1894 by three foreign forwarders based in the port and had established regular freight lines between ports in the Adriatic and in North America and the Gulf of Mexico. After a positive start which saw the fleet increase to nine modern ships, the company was deeply affected by the 1900 crisis which gave the Cosulich brothers the opportunity to buy enough shares to gain control and, afterwards, to become full owners. In 1904, the new registered name became “Unione Austriaca di Navigazione già Austro-Americana e Fratelli Cosulich Società Anonima”.
The crisis prompted a huge flow of migrants to the New World, which attracted the attention of the big shipping companies from Britain and Germany. Competing with giant enterprises such as the Norddeutscher Lloyd of Bremen, the Hamburg-Amerika Linie of Hamburg and the Cunard Line of Liverpool would not be an easy task for the Unione Austriaca but, after fitting her with some spartan steerage accommodation, they despatched their steamer Gerty from Trieste to New York on the 9th April, 1904 on the first line voyage with passengers of what would soon become universally known as the Cosulich Line.
The crossings of the Gerty proved successful and her running mates Giulia and Frieda soon underwent the same modification; and in November, 1904 a far larger steamship, the Georgia (formerly the Regina Elena of the Puglia Shipping Co.) sailed for her first crossing to New York with a record number of 1,156 emigrants. Cosulich were now in the position of being able to request (and obtain) a state subsidy to cope with the foreign competition in the trade from their homeport: a 10-year contract from the Vienna government for the transport of the transatlantic mails. With such a contract in hand, bank support was not difficult to obtain and the company’s capital was raised to 18 million crowns. The two German companies decided to withdraw their ships from Trieste and, instead, to become shareholders in the Cosulich enterprise.
A 1911 brochure devoted to the Latin America services of the Austro-Americana, printed in litography by the Stabilimento N. Zanardini di Trieste, well-know also as post stamp printer; inside there are description and pictures of the new twin-screw mail steamers Laura and Alice.
By 1907, the fleet consisted of 24 sea-going steamers and one harbour tug: it was in the same year that Cosulich opened a migrant hotel in Trieste (still today a beautiful building and ordered three much more modern liners from British yards. In addition, they obtained the right to embark migrants from the Italian ports of Palermo and Naples and also opened a regular service to South America. The same year saw the entry into service of the brand new combi-liners Alice, Argentina, Laura and Oceania, which in 1908 were joined by the British-built Columbia, Atlanta and Martha Washington. The latter, which started her maiden voyage to New York on the 23rd March, 1908, was the first Cosulich liner fitted with de luxe facilities for first class passengers and also the line’s first ship with twin propellers and two funnels.
The Martha Washington proved to be the last ship built abroad for the Cosulich Line: a worsening of the international economic scenario and the subsequent fall of the Austrian currency against the British pound caused the family to take the important decision to develop their own shipyard.
This massive project came about thanks to the friendship between Oscar Cosulich (Callisto’s son) and Arturo Rebulla, the mayor of Monfalcone, 30 kilometres west of Trieste. Rebulla believed in the industrial future of his town and offered Cosulich the unhealthy swamp of Panzano, right on the seafront of Monfalcone, to be reclaimed and made suitable to become the site of a large shipyard. This was officially inaugurated on the 3rd April, 1908 with the name Cantiere Navale Triestino. With considerable thoughtfulness, the Cosulich immediately planned their new facility as what we would now call a company town: there were houses for the married workers, hostels for unmarried employees, social co-operative markets, kindergartens, schools and recreation facilities such as a theatre and sporting clubs. The workshops were, of course, equipped with the most high-tech machinery of the times and to take charge of the facility Cosulich invited three Scottish managers from Russell & Co., the yard where many of their vessels had been launched, including the most recent one, Martha Washington.
Very quickly, the yard hit the headlines: on the 9th September, 1911 it launched the Kaiser Franz Joseph I from the largest of its shipways. With her 12,500 gross tons, she was by far the largest and most luxurious passenger liner yet launched from a Mediterranean shipyard. In the Fall of 1912, construction started at the Monfalcone yard of an even larger flagship whose entrance into the Trieste – New York express service was projected for 1915. However, the Great War scuppered these plans and the ship was never completed: the shipyard was exactly on the front line between the Austrian and Italian armies and was almost razed to the ground, while the ship was heavily damaged.
The beautiful duo-tone cover for the first litographic-print brochure produced for the Cosulich Line after Trieste became part of Italy, in 1921, by the Industrie Grafiche Cesare Besozzi of Milan.
The Casa Editrice d'Arte Bestetti & Tumminelli of Milan and Rome was entrusted in 1927 with the printing of this brochure devoted to the second classes of the Saturnia and Vulcania; inside is profulsely illustrated with ink drawings showing the lie on board as well as with colour and balck and white plates of the interiors.
The family did not despond, however, and, even before the area officially became part of the Kingdom of Italy under the post-War settlement, they started a process of reconstruction which led to Monfalcone becoming an even more modern and efficient shipyard than it had been before the War. In the early ’Twenties, the Cosulich Line decided to order two new flagships which would project them into the very highest ranks of the transatlantic travel trade. In fact, the future Saturnia and Vulcania would prove to be the swansong of the Cosulich empire. The enterprising Oscar and Augusto Cosulich were convinced of the virtues of the new diesel engines and they bought a licence to build them in their Sant’Andrea workshops to the designs of the Danish firm of Burmeister& Wain. There, the four largest internal combustion engines in the World were manufactured and assembled. In addition, they opened a school to train diesel engineers in Trieste.
The complexity of these two new ships put a heavy strain on both the yard and the line, with unexpected issues and delays continually arising; and the situation was further aggravated by the fact that the Cosulich had recently rescued the Lloyd Triestino group which had become financially distressed. In 1929, the enlarged Cosulich firm was taken over by the Lloyd Sabaudo of Turin. Lloyd Sabaudo, however, allowed a great degree of autonomy to the Cosulich Line, still based in Trieste, which retained an independent management of its ships and routes. In 1932, affected by the Great Depression, the main Italian shipping companies were nationalised by the government under the banner “Italia Flotte Riunite, Navigazione Generale, Lloyd Sabuado e Cosulich Line”, with the latter name still maintained for reasons of prestige. However, at the end of 1936 a further reorganisation saw the Cosulich name disappear from the Atlantic.