The Carpathia joined the Cunard Line in 1903, the last of three sister ships, the earlier vessels being the Saxonia and the Ivernia. Her keel had been laid down on September 10, 1901, at the Wallsend shipyard Swan & Hunter, and she was launched on August 6, 1902. An interesting sidelight to her construction was that while the Carpathia was taking shape in one of the yard’s gantries, at the other end of the shipyard archeologists had begun excavating the recently-discovered eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient Roman boundary between Britannia and Caledonia–Britain and Scotland–a fascinating juxtaposition of the ancient world and the modern.
The Carpathia‘s appearance was distinctive, even handsome, though it would be a stretch to call her beautiful. She had a long, black hull with a graceful sheer, a straight up-and-down cutter bow, and a graceful counter stern. Rather than the multi-tiered, wedding-cake superstructure, surmounted by clusters of vent cowls and funnels, sported by earlier Cunard ships, the Carpathia‘s superstructure was long and low, creating the visual impression that it had been somehow flattened out and spread the length of the hull. Atop it all perched a single tall, slender funnel; spaced equidistant along the length of the ship were four masts. As awkward as this arrangement may sound, as a whole the proportions worked together to create a look that was at once a purposeful yet almost yacht-like appearance.
The four masts were no affectation added for appearance–they acted as kingposts for the booms that were used when loading or unloading cargo. The Carpathia‘s cargo spaces were quite large, as she had been built to serve as a refrigerated cargo carrier as well as a passenger ship. When fitted out, she had accommodations for two hundred Second Class passengers and fifteen hundred Third Class–there were no First Class cabins at all. Her powerplant was a pair of ten-cylinder quadruple expansion engines turning her two propellers, which gave her a top speed during her sea trials of just over 15 knots.
Despite the absence of First Class berthing, the standard of the accommodations was remarkably high: rather than imitate the gilt-and-marble extravagance of then-current German ships, Cunard placed a premium on quiet comfort. Even in Third Class there were features normally found only in higher classes on other companies’ ships–-they included a smoking room (the usual practice was for Third Class smokers to make do with taking their nicotine on the open deck, quite an impossible feat in anything but clear weather), a bar, a ladies’ sitting room and a dining saloon spacious enough to serve 300 people at one sitting–-quite large by any standard for any class of passengers at the time. Second Class had similar amenities, somewhat more opulent in decor, of course, as well as a library.
Third Class berthing on a ship like the Carpathia was spread out along the lower three decks of the ship, the superstructure being the exclusive preserve of Second Class. The quarters would be divided into sections for single men, single women, married couples, and families. The cabins themselves were spacious, spotless, and if a bit austere, were by all reports comfortable enough, while the Third Class galley provided a fare that, though not spectacular, offered good food and plenty of it; in some cases, especially of those from the more impoverished Balkan countries or Irish counties, the steerage passengers ate better aboard ship than they ever had at home. All in all, they received a good deal more than most expected when they paid for their passage, especially when fares could be as low as £7 for a Third Class berth: a clean berth, fresh linens and soap each morning, and three meals a day.
The Carpathia passed her sea trials in April 1903, and left Liverpool on her maiden voyage on May 5. Cunard created a schedule for her which during the summer months put her on the run between either Liverpool and New York, or Liverpool and Boston, while between November and May, she carried immigrants (mainly Italian and Hungarian) from Trieste and Fiume in the Adriatic to America. Though this schedule had been designed first and foremost to serve the immigrant trade, which was Cunard’s bread-and-butter in these years, it wasn’t long before the Mediterranean crossings began to enjoy a vogue among wealthy Americans on holiday; soon Gibraltar, Genoa and Naples (and sometimes Messina and Palermo) were added to the itinerary as ports of call.
In an effort to capitalize on this new found popularity for the Mediterranean, Cunard sent the Carpathia back to Swan & Hunter in 1905, there to be refitted with entirely new accommodations. Cabins and public rooms for 100 First Class passengers were provided, Second Class accommodation remained at 200, while by converting some of the cargo space and making a minor reduction in cabin sizes, Third Class berthing was increased to 2,250 passengers. The Carpathia was now very much a passenger liner, and in a low-key way, one of Cunard’s most popular. While there would always be that segment of the traveling public which clamored for the thrill–-and sometimes discomfort–-of a six-day passage on Cunard’s new Blue Ribband speedsters Lusitania and Mauretania, there were just as many who enjoyed the leisurely pace of a ten day crossing to Liverpool or fourteen days to Trieste aboard the Carpathia. By 1909 she had been placed on the Mediterranean run permanently, only returning to Liverpool at the end of each year for a refit.
In January 1912, the Carpathia was given a new captain, the man with whom her named would forever be linked, even long after he had gone on to far greater and more glamorous commands. That Captain was Arthur Henry Rostron.