The burning of the French Normandie may pale in comparison with the disaster that struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 last year, yet the attack on what was once considered the most luxurious luxury liner, according to Miller, was among the great tragedies of the time.
Hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the Hudson River witnessed the 1942 disaster as the ship burned at the piers at 48th Street in Manhattan.
"She was the ultimate ship in every way," Miller said. "She was big, fast, innovative and the absolute standard-setter, then and even now."
The Normandie, along with the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, was considered one of the three largest ships then afloat. Although the 83,000-ton ship had already been stripped of much of its finery by the time of the fire - she was being used as a cargo and troop carrier for the war - her sinking brought home to many the reality of the war. This was Feb. 9, 1942, a mere three months after the Pearl Harbor attack.
"The ship caught fire, then rolled over," Miller said. "Anybody that was living in Weehawken or Hoboken could have seen the horrible sight."
Sixty years later, in his friend's apartment, Miller found himself staring at many of the pieces that had once made the Normandie so luxurious. The friend had deliberately sought out those items that had once been part of the Normandie's allure, from the great piano to many pieces of furniture including chairs and paneling, and a lot of the artwork.
"I was stunned," Miller said. And Miller, who has traveled on and written dozens of published books about most of the modern luxury cruise ships, is not easily impressed. But the items from that ship made him realize the vital role he plays in publishing books on historic ships. He, like his friend, was preserving a piece of the past that people might never see again.
Miller grew up around the big ships
Miller has written over 70 books detailing numerous facets of the cruise ship era. Yet few of these books seem so relevant in the post-Sept. 11 period as his most recent book, Passenger Liners French Style, which talks in part about the sinking of the Normandie, a fire that took place near the beginning of the end for the great luxury cruise ships, and for that matter, Hoboken as a transportation and cargo center.
While ships still continued to dock there for a while, the industry began to fade and the docks eventually closed.
Miller, of course, has also witnessed the rebirth of the cruise ship industry as new and amazing ships take to the water. What these new ships lack in the sense of style that the old ships had, they make up for in modern comforts.
Miller moved to Secaucus in the early 1990s, has taught nearly 40 years in the Hoboken school system, and when he hasn't been teaching, he's been off on a trip on a cruise ship, putting his experience as well as tidbits of other people's memories into his books.
At 57, Miller is not old enough to have seen the Normandie, but he saw many of the other great cruise ships as a boy. Miller can't remember the very first time he saw these ships docked along the piers in Hoboken, partly because he went there so often a young boy. Growing up in Hoboken at 12th and Garden streets allowed him to wander down to the riverside nearly every day during the 1950s. He said he could never get enough of watching the ships sailing in and out - especially the cruise ships.
He got to see The Imperator, The Constitution, The Independence, The Mauritania, The New Amsterdam, The Leviathan and the host of other ships that used Hoboken as their port.
Yet even as he viewed these ships back then, Miller knew he was witnessing the end of an era, that the flood of freight into Hoboken and the great cruise ships would soon begin to vanish. The golden age was over and he was lucky just to get a brief glimpse before it went.
Perhaps this even motivated him to document what he saw and what he heard about so that future generations would be able to get a small glimpse, too.
Miller's books deal with nearly every aspect of modern and historic cruise ships. Over the year, he has appeared on television programs and in lecture halls talking about adventures on the high seas. He once served as the historical curator for the American Merchant Marine Academy Museum, the executive director of the Port of New York branch of the World Ship Society, and the executive director of New York's annual Harbor Festival. Most recently, Miller was named the adjunct curator for the newly established Ocean Liner Collection at New York City's South Street Seaport Museum.
This collection is made up from the archive of world-renowned architect Der Scutt and includes the prized collection of models, books, photos, nautical memorabilia and commemoratives. Miller predicts that this will become the centerpiece for the finest resource center on ocean liners anywhere in the world.
"We were originally supposed to open this in October," Miller said. "But after Sept. 11 we decided to delay it until March or April."
Miller said he hopes that the museum will become a center of research.
Gets his stories from everywhere
Over the years, Miller has appeared on A&E and History Channel as well as numerous cruise liner videos. He has taken over 265 voyages on more than 200 different ships to 128 different counties.
Miller's latest books, Passenger Liners French Style and Picture History of American Passenger Ships, continued to draw on his access to thousands of pages of private archived historical documents.
"People allow me to use these to help me write my books," he said.
Miller said the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 last year and the subsequent fall in the economy have had a debilitating effect on the tourist industry, especially cruise ships. He said if people can overcome fear of travel, they can get deep discounts as much as 50 to 75 percent off typical costs.
Miller, who takes trips every chance he gets, is planning a trip to Europe this year, and said that the British Isles are one of his favorite destinations.
"There is a bit of history nearly everywhere you turn," he said.
The trips and the thousands of slides he's taken on them have become an intricate part of his social studies lessons. He often has students researching and writing essays about what they've seen in his slides.
Over the years, more and more organizations have drawn upon Miller's expertise on steamships, and he finds himself invited to speak before various groups, although he still continues to lecture while on cruises. Indeed, he garners additional information for his books while sailing.
"People like to talk about what they know, and I listen to them," Miller said. "Nearly everybody has a story to tell, and often these stories make their way into my books as well."