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What Is a Tramp Steamer?

Gregory Hanson
Gregory Hanson

A tramp steamer was a type of ship, powered by steam, which took part in the tramp style of ocean trading. These ships were common around the turn of the last century but essentially vanished as coal began to be replaced by diesel as the fuel of choice for sea travel in the middle of the 20th century. These ships had a certain mystique and aura of adventure about them. This adventurous spirit lives on to some extent in modern tramp freighters although small independent freighters have grown much less common.

The tramp trade is one part of the system of seafaring commerce. Much of the world’s cargo has always been hauled on fixed schedules. That was true in 1900 and is even truer today as shipping has come to be dominated by large firms with carefully planned schedules. Carefully planned trade cannot respond perfectly to every market demand, and small or unusual orders are especially hard to predict and deliver using this model of trade.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Tramp trade relies on the unscheduled shuttling of cargo from port to port. A tramp steamer would load whatever cargo happened to have the best profit margin from sale or shipping fees and take it to the port where that cargo was needed. The tramp steamer would then load whatever cargo needed to be hauled from this new port of call.

As steamships, tramp steamers relied on coal-fired boilers to generate steam. This steam was then used to move the ship, first by means of paddlewheels and later with the aid of more durable and efficient screw propellers. Tramp steamers typically needed to stop fairly frequently to refuel, as the coal bunkers on a steamship were not able to provide as much range as diesel tanks on a modern freighter.

Historically, the most important role of a tramp steamer was to haul cargo. These ships would typically have room for a number of passengers as well, however. In the era before air travel, this provided the only reliable means of reaching some relatively obscure destinations that were not well-served by passenger ships. Traveling on a tramp steamer never offered the same level of style or elegance that was available on one of the great passenger liners but was often much more practical and affordable.

This class of ship acquired a certain mystique from the seemingly free-spirited nature of the tramp trade and from the relative ease of gaining passage on such a ship. Tramp steamers often accepted crew members for short stints. This provided one way for adventurous young men to see the world on a shoestring budget.

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