Lewis Fraser with his son Lewis Fraser Jr at the Port of Miami in 1996. Behind them is Royal Caribbean’s Nordic Empress, the last purpose-built Miami-Nassau 3- and 4-night cruise ship. Photo courtesy Seatrade – Andy Newman.
The cruise industry in Miami is mourning the passing of Lewis ‘Lew’ A Fraser, whose catering concessions once provided the food, beverages, chefs, cooks and waiters for Royal Caribbean, Costa Cruises, Regency Cruises and Premier Cruise Lines. Fraser died on Wednesday, October 8. He was 75. For the full Seatrade obituary please go here.
Lew was one of six children of Frank Leslie Fraser, who was heavily involved in the banana shipping business from Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In 1950, when Lew was 10, his father founded the Eastern Shipping Corporation. Eastern in turn chartered the 3,445-ton Nuevo Dominicano, a ship that could carry 177 cruise passengers, from the Flota Mercante Dominicana. This ship had first cruised from Miami as the Clarke Steamship Company’s New Northland in the winter of 1926-27. With her, Fraser introduced the first year-round cruises from Miami. The number of cruise passengers handled at Miami in 1950 rose to 61,000, helped by the new year-round cruise service..
Lew’s father, Jamaican-born F Leslie Fraser, started cruising from Miami with the Eastern Shipping Corporation in 1950. Chartering the 177-passenger Nuevo Dominicano, she was the first to offer year-round cruises from Miami, then a winter port.
During the 1950s, Fraser added new ships to his fleet, starting with the 5,002-ton Yarmouth and Evangeline in 1954, followed by the 7,114-ton Bahama Star in 1959 and the 6,644-ton Ariadne in 1960. During this period, Fraser brought in as a partner William R Lovett of Jacksonville, who owned the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain, and to whom Fraser had been shipping bananas for many years. Lovett had shipping interests of his own and in May 1961, Fraser sold out to Lovett, who renamed the company Eastern Steamship Corporation. Fraser finally turned over full control just a few months before he died in June 1962. Six years later, in 1968, Lovett added the largest Miami ship yet, the 9,914-ton New Bahama Star.
In 1970, Lovett sold out to the Norwegian Gotaas-Larsen Corporation, one of the intial shareholders in Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, which was building three new ships, the Nordic Prince, Song of Norway and Sun Viking. Any conflict of interest was avoided by Eastern sticking to the 3- and 4-night Bahamas trade while Royal Caribbean concentrated on 7- and 14-night Caribbean cruises. By then, the numbers of Miami cruise passengers had risen ten times in twenty years, to 610,000. In 1972, Gotaas-Larsen added the 24,351-ton Emerald Seas to the Eastern fleet, again the largest ship to cruise from Miami.
The company, by now trading as Eastern Cruise Lines, merged with its own affiliate Western Cruise Lines and Stan McDonald’s Stardance Cruises, forming Admiral Cruises in 1986. By this time the Port of Miami was handling 3,000,000 passengers a year. Admiral Cruises became Royal Admiral Cruises and was absorbed into Royal Caribbean in 1992. The last project undertaken by Admiral was a ship called the “Future Seas,” which entered service in 1990 as the 48,563-ton Nordic Empress. Trading today as the Empress for Pullmantur Cruises, this ship was the last and the largest to be purpose-built for the 3- and 4-night Bahamas cruise trade from Miami.
F Leslie Fraser acquired the Farnorth in Canada in 1937, renaming her Southern Lady. Selling her in 1942, he bought her back again in 1952 and renamed her Lewis Fraser after his son.
In 1952, when he was 12, Lew had a ship named after him (right). When his father purchased the 1,712-ton Ciudad Trujillo from the Flota Mercante Dominicana, from whom he had been chartering the Nuevo Dominicano, he renamed her Lewis Fraser. This was actually the second time the Frasers had owned this ship, as they had first purchased her in Canada in 1937, when she was trading between Boston and the Atlantic Provinces of Canada as the Farnorth. Renamed Southern Lady, she traded for Fraser in the Caribbean until he sold her in 1942 to Cayman Islands owners. As the Lewis Fraser, she was used in the Cuba trade until the eve of the Cuban Revolution under Fidel Castro. Almost fifty years old by then, she was finally sold for scrapping at Baltimore in 1957.
In an interview with Seatrade Cruise Review in March 1996, Lew recounted to Anne Kalosh an interesting story about his own beginnings in the cruise industry – and the name Royal Caribbean:
F Leslie Fraser had run Eastern Shipping Corp, selling the company before his death in 1962. Lewis and a brother created a firm called Royal Caribbean to handle the estate. Their office at the old Port of Miami was one floor above the Yarmouth Steamship Co, managed by Edwin Stephan…
But it wasn’t long before this fourth generation shipping man was drawn back to the sea. He looked up Ed Stephan, now general manager of Commodore, who was introducing Boheme in 1968.
As Fraser tells it, “Ed was looking for a caterer and I was looking to get back into the cruise business. I asked Ed if he’d consider me. He said, “Lew, what do you know about catering?” I said “Nothing, but I do know how to put together an organisation and I like the cruise business.” He got the job.
It was a rough start. But gradually Fraser had things running so smoothly that when Stephan went on to launch his own cruise line, Fraser not only nabbed the catering contract, he also lent the name: Royal Caribbean.
It is forgotten by most now that Lew and his brother Frank L Fraser Jr formed Pan American Cruise Lines, of which Lew was president, in 1965, and chartered an Israeli ship, the Nili, to cruise from Miami. On hearing of the owner’s financial condition, however, Pan American ended the charter and a company called Arison Shipping stepped in and took over, but ended up with no ship. This led to the charter of another ship called the Sunward, but that’s another story. The passing of Lew Fraser closes an interesting chapter in the cruising history of Miami.
For those interested in knowing more about the Fraser days in the 1950s and 60s, there is further information here:
Excerpt from St Lawrence Saga: The Clarke Steamship Story