A Trip on the Marjorie: Cuba and Jamaica, 1900

In March 1900, Bessie Van Wickle took possession of the new 174-foot yacht that her husband Augustus had commissioned two years earlier. It was built by the Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding and Engine Works in Chester, Pennsylvania – a beautiful vessel, capable of extended ocean journeys. Bessie sold the 1896 Herreshoff yacht Marjorie after Augustus died in 1898 and had its two carved wooden quarter boards transferred to the new yacht.

Loading the Marjorie 1900. Standing, center, William McKee, Dorothy Pardee, Marjorie Van Wickle holding Augustine Van Wickle

Her lifestyle no longer included plans for long ocean travel and she planned to sell the boat as soon as possible. But first she would take it on its maiden voyage. An exciting trip was arranged, from New York to Cuba and Jamaica.

Marjorie II left New York in March, carrying Bessie and Marjorie and baby Augustine, accompanied by a full crew of 18, a nursemaid for Augustine, a physician for Bessie, and guests William McKee, Estelle Clements, and Marjorie’s cousin Dorothy Pardee.

The yacht made landfall in Havana, Cuba, a place Estelle found much more interesting than she had expected. The city looked foreign, and Estelle thought it was strange to see the Stars and Stripes flying. “The streets are very narrow … I enjoyed looking through the doors that led to the central courts around which the better houses are built. They were so attractive, filled with tropical plants.”

The party was invited to a military review at Quemados of 2000 troops, cavalry, artillery and infantry, after which they went to the headquarters of General Lee where they were introduced to Elihu Root, Secretary of War. Bessie and Estelle were, of course, enchanted with the beautiful gardens, particularly the trees: “an India Rubber tree fifty to seventy-five feet high, with roots above ground covering half an acre. Palm trees towering twenty-five to thirty feet above your head.” They also admired the banana groves, coconut palms, and coffee bushes.

Augustine Van Wickle on the deck of the Marjorie, 1900

After a very rough crossing from Cuba to Jamaica, they arrived in Montego Bay, buffeted and seasick. Estelle had to be lashed to her seat on deck, but she conceded that “the Marjorie is a splendid sea-going boat and rides the water like a duck.” A much smoother passage took them to Port Antonio. “The sail down was like a beautiful panorama. The island is covered with a luxuriant tropical growth. The sunsets were beautiful and the nights glorious. The moon and stars are much brighter than at home.”

The next day they drove to Blue Hole on the east coast. “I cannot give you any idea of the charm of it. The wonder, and the variety of the vegetation, the beautiful sea views … the mountains are covered with coconuts, the water a deep blue and of a wonderful clearness with myriads of little fish in it.”

They noted fields of peppermint, nutmeg, chocolate, coffee, aloes, cinnamon, oranges, bananas, grapefruit, mangoes and pineapples, and went to Castleton to see the collection of wonderful and interesting trees and shrubs, from East India, Africa, Madagascar, and other distant lands.  “The mountains were so beautiful in shape and the trees, ferns, and shrubs so beautiful. Imagine great beds of purple tradescantia growing on the road side and masses of begonias above them – alamanders growing wild and lantana and coleus as large as lilacs. One of the most beautiful things is the masses of bamboo – so graceful and so delicate in color.” Perhaps this was where Bessie determined to grow bamboo at Blithewold.