Monday, September 27, 2010

September 27, 1854



After the war of 1812 , the United States and Great Britain resumed commercial trade.

On both sides of the Atlantic, businessmen competed for their share of this increasingly lucrative business. Faster ships made more money, even if it meant going full speed into bad weather and poor visibility. Many ships vanished, forever listed as overdue, and presumed lost to bad weather and icebergs.

On the Eastern side, the driving force was Samuel Cunard. In the 1840's he came to dominate the Atlantic market, with the line that to this day bears his name. The British government backed him financially, so the ships could, in the event of conflict, be requisitioned by the navy (which they often were).

On the Western side, a number of American lines tried, with varying degrees of success. The U.S. government was less inclined to become involved in these matters, and so capital was harder to raise for building ships.

As sail gave way to steam, this changed. The Americans were concerned that Cunard's steamers could be converted to warships. Faced with both real economic and feared military competition, the government began backing various companies to try and win trade back from Cunard.

The man to lead this was Edward Collins. With government subsidies he built 4 large steamships (Arctic, Pacific, Baltic, and Atlantic), bigger, faster, and more luxurious than Cunard's ships, to challenge his rival. The plan was to run a tight schedule across the Atlantic.

The Collins Line ships, with their combination of sails and paddle wheels, were some of the fastest in the world at the time. They showed the Atlantic could be crossed in the remarkable time of 10 days, and in a few cases, 9.

Backed by their respective governments, Collins' and Cunard's lines competed intensely to dominate the 3000 miles of north Atlantic. Until 12:15 p.m. on this day.

As the Arctic steamed west, through a heavy Newfoundland fog, she collided with a small French ship, the S.S. Vesta. The Vesta, although much smaller, had a hull reinforced with iron.

In the first few minutes after the collision, many of the Vesta's crew assumed their damage was fatal, and abandoned ship (against orders) to try and reach the larger Arctic. They were wrong. The crew of the Vesta worked miracles and overcame the damage.

Captain James Luce of the Arctic was a veteran of the sea. Believing his own damage to be minimal, he turned the Arctic around to aid the Vesta, and launched 2 lifeboats to help evacuate it's passengers to the Arctic.

These orders were quickly canceled when one of the lifeboats reported the severity of the damage to him. The ship was badly damaged. Like the Titanic 58 years later, he had the legally required number of lifeboats. And they weren't nearly enough to hold everyone on board.

Cape Race was 4 hours away. With his duty to his own ship clear, Luce abandoned the Vesta, heading for land. His hope was to beach the ship before she could sink.

The wreck of the Arctic over the next few hours quickly turned into a nightmarish struggle for survival, very different from the civility seen in the Titanic. Captain Luce accepted that he and his 11 year old son (who was traveling with him) were going to die, and did his best to save passengers. He was betrayed by his crew and most of his officers.

His crew disobeyed orders, commandeered the lifeboats, and fled. A trusted officer and handpicked team of seamen were placed in a lifeboat so that passengers could be lowered down to them. As soon as they reached the water they rowed away, with plenty of space in their boat.

Without lifeboats, Luce and his few remaining crew did their best. They tore the wooden deck to pieces, frantically trying to build rafts. Doors were torn from hinges to be used for flotation. All furniture made of wood was assembled on deck in hopes of saving more lives.

Of 408 who sailed, there were 86 survivors (64 crew, and 22 passengers). Not a single woman or child lived. They're remembered by a monument in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery.

Captain Luce, surprisingly, survived. He and his son went down with the ship, but were ejected from the vortex as it sank. As they swam away, a large wooden paddle wheel cover broke loose from below the sea. It launched into the air like a rocket, then came down, killing his son. And yet, at the same time, it became a makeshift lifeboat for Luce and a handful of swimmers. They were picked up after a few days by a passing ship.

The loss was a disaster, both personally and financially, for the Collins Line. Besides Luce's son, the deaths included Collins' wife and 2 of their children.

Although mostly forgotten today, the disaster dominated headlines on both sides of the Atlantic for a month, until replaced by the Crimean War. It had the same effect then as the Titanic would in 1912. Safety specialists recommended specific East-West shipping lanes. Slower speeds and loud whistles in fog. Lifeboats for everyone. The majority of the recommendations were ignored until the aftermath of the Titanic.

2 years later, in 1856, the Arctic's sister, the S.S. Pacific, vanished en route from Liverpool to New York.

It was another blow for the Collins line. There was an economic recession, and the U.S. government was now willing to let Cunard have the Atlantic. Collins' subsidies were cut, and in 1858 his line folded. The surviving ships were auctioned off.

The wreck of the Arctic hasn't been found (to my knowledge no one has looked).

The Pacific was thought to have been lost to storms or icebergs in the north Atlantic. To the surprise of everyone, she was accidentally found in 1991 in the Irish Sea, only 60 miles from where she left Liverpool. Why she sank remains a mystery.

Cunard survives to this day, though is now owned by Carnival Lines.

Government subsidies for shipping, with the ships to be used in time of war, continued into this century in all the major powers.

The last American attempt to share the Atlantic trade lies, mostly forgotten, in Philadelphia. She is the liner S.S. United States, built with subsidies after World War II. The government paid for her huge size and (even to this day) remarkable speed, with the plan of using her as a fast troop transport in future conflicts. Her commercial career, like all liners, was doomed by the passenger jet. Multiple attempts continue to be made today to save her from the scrapyard.

15 comments:

Don said...

One minor quibble, Dr. Grumpy. The line that starts "2 years later, in 1956, the Arctic's..."

should read "2 years later, in 1856, the Arctic's"

Sorry about this, but I'm proofreading this am at work. My nickpicking doesn't detract from the post.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Thank you. 102 years is a bit longer than I meant.

aek said...

These maritime hx stories/lessons are terrific. Hope you'll tag them and put them in a series. I don't want to miss any.

Thanks and have a marvelous Monday!

amy said...

I love it when you post these bits of history; your telling makes it very readable and exciting. My 15-year old, who doesn't much care for history, looks forward to reading your blogs on shipwrecks. He says after each one "Why can't this guy be my teacher?" I'm sure it doesn't seem a horrible alternative after your weekend of on-calls.

The Bus Driver said...

Love your history lessons!!

Anonymous said...

I love stories like this. Brings tears to the eyes. If you want more stories of courage, read of the SS Meredith Victory or of CG36500. They who go down to the sea...

Ladyk73 said...

I have a couple of friends with Captain licenses, or as wikipedia will tell me, Master of Vessels. Kind of like a CDL license for boats. The certificate was all fancy...not like a drivers license. But it seriousness... these captains are part of the merchant marine...the little know military-ish branch... It is facinating

ERP said...

I've driven past the United States in Philadelphia. She is quite impressive (especially after passing the Mosulu and the Olympic which are also very cool).

gabbiana said...

OH MY GOD THAT SHIP. YES.

Mike said...

Since you mention the S.S. United States, I can never think of her without thinking of the tragic fate of her fleetmate: S.S. America, latterly known by many other names, and finally as S.S. American Star.

Such a sad loss, especially given how sound she'd been just before her last trip.

http://www.lostliners.com/America.html

The Mother said...

I love these nautical history posts. This is stuff I know next to nothing about, and you are filling some serious gaps.

I did walk past the enormous Cunard building in downtown Manhattan. Classic art-deco, pricey real estate.

Anonymous said...

What a tragic tale.

Anonymous said...

So what ever happened to the crew? Were they punished? How about the fate of the Captain?

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Most of the crew who stole lifeboats vanished. The few who were found were not punished.

The captain was not punished. By all accounts he did his best under the circumstances.

The story is well documented in "And the Sea shall Embrace Them" if you want to read further.

Anonymous said...

Grumpy, thanks for your prompt response and recommendation.

 
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