When the SS Atlantic left Liverpool on March 20, 1873, it had 952 passengers on board, a number that increased thanks to two births midway across the Atlantic Ocean. Heading towards New York City, Captain James Williams made the decision to divert to Halifax to refuel.
Little did he know it would be a fateful choice. Captain Williams was tired after several long, cold nights at sea. On the bridge with him late in the evening of March 31, was his senior officer, Henry Metcalf. Metcalf had been given the position thanks to his cousin, Thomas Ismay, the founder of the White Star Line. The Atlantic was the crown jewel in the company’s fleet.
Capt. Williams told Metcalf, and the third officer, Cornelius Brady, who was much more experienced, to wake him if they saw a stationary light on the horizon. He said that a moving light would be a ship, but a stationary light was the Sambro Lighthouse. As the captain slept, Metcalf and the third officer looked out to sea.
All they saw were high waves crashing in the darkness as the ship barreled towards Nova Scotia. What they didn’t know was that high winds were slowly veering northwest and now they were 20 kilometres off course
The helmsman was the only crew member to have ever been to Halifax and he something was terribly wrong. When he raised concerns to the officers on duty, he was ignored. Capt. Williams would eventually wake up, not by a hand shaking his shoulder, but from The SS Atlantic crashing into a rock off the coast of Nova Scotia. Of course, that is just one version of what happened on that fateful night. What’s not up for debate is that of the 952 passengers on the ship, only 429 lived to tell the tale of one of the worst maritime disasters of the 19th century.
I’m Craig Baird….and this is Canadian History Ehx
The SS Atlantic was no simple steamer when it took to the waves for the first time on June 8, 1871.
Built in Belfast in 1870 by Harland and Wolff, shipbuilders to the world, The SS Atlantic was one of four Oceanic-class liners built by the company.
The Republic, Oceanic, Baltic, and Atlantic, were built for a company called Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, soon to be known as the White Star Line. If that name seems familiar, it should. The company would go on to build The Titanic 30 years later.
But at the time, the company was a premier shipping company and its name synonymous with high quality service for its first-class passengers. At least until it became synonymous with icebergs being straight ahead that is. Thomas Ismay had a long career in shipping. He had been building up a small fortune by purchasing ships since he was a teenager. Over the course of his life, he purchased the Liverpool, Melbourne and in 1868 he acquired the Oriental Steam Navigation Company Limited after it went bankrupt and renamed it the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company.
Its first ship, the Oceanic, launched on its maiden voyage on March 2, 1871, but it quickly began to overheat at sea, and was forced to return to Ireland for repairs. Two weeks later, the ship launched again and arrived in New York a week later without incident. While docked for two weeks, 50,000 people boarded the ship to view her before she returned to Ireland.
With the success of the Oceanic, completion of the three other ships was highly anticipated
Construction on the Atlantic began a year earlier in 1870, and she was completed on June 3, 1871, under three months after the Oceanic made it to New York Powered by a four-cylinder 600 horsepower engine, the Atlantic was capable of 14 knots , or 26 km/h when she set off on her maiden voyage five days later
Advanced for the time, the ship was fitted with a telegraph to allow communication between the engine room and the bridge while at sea. The Atlantic had three decks, five bulkheads and was designed to a luxurious standard never seen on a ship before. Passengers could choose to travel in cabin or steerage accommodations Cabin or first class featured a saloon that was 80 feet long.
Which was impressive considering the ship was 421 feet long. The washrooms had running water, and each washroom was heated by steam when needed. Think about it this way… the year was 1871 most homes in Canada had no running water.
Meanwhile Cabin passengers on this ship could also enjoy a walk on deck to smell the fresh ocean air during their Atlantic voyage.
An advertisement in the New York Daily Tribune on July 1, 1871, described the accommodations as,
“Unrivalled, combining safety, speed and comfort.”
As for steerage or those in coach, accommodations were not quite as luxurious. While some steerage passengers had cabins to themselves, many were housed with other people they had only just met. Their washrooms were communal and far from luxurious, especially after a week at sea.
Single men were housed in the bow area of steerage class, while the aft steerage class was reserved for married couples and single women.
Unlike cabin class passengers, those in steerage had no access to the deck or fresh air. While cabin class passengers could enjoy the piano in the saloon well into the night, steerage passengers were required to be in their cabins at 11 p.m. each night when the lights were turned down, and they remained there, until the next morning.
On any given journey across the ocean, there were a few dozen people in cabin class, and hundreds in steerage. From 1871 to 1873, the Atlantic completed 18 crossings without.
Almost… on Aug 23, 1871, it had aa minor collision with the SS Alexandria which resulted in damages equal to $42,577 in 2022 funds.
With that near perfect record the SS Atlantic set sail on March 20, 1873, loaded with 952 passengers and crew.
The first few days of the journey were mostly uneventful except for when a rogue wave hit the ship. It reached as high as the boat deck and destroyed a lifeboat.
The trip was slower than usual due to heavy south-west and westerly gales from March 24 to 26.
This caused the ship to use more coal than on a typical journey. Which meant that by March 31, The Atlantic only had 127 tons of coal remaining, not enough to reach New York given the current windy conditions. The trip that typically took eight days, was now entering its tenth day and they were still two days out from New York.
Because of the delay problems began to mount.
The salted meat was completely consumed, a large portion of water supplies had been washed away by the waves
And most of all passengers – the majority in steerage – were complaining about the lack of food. Among the ramshackle crew, there was growing anger and resentment at being at sea for so long. One report even stated that a few crew members broke into the alcohol and got drunk while on duty. To ensure the ship could complete its journey, amid all this growing chaos, the decision was made to go to Halifax to load up on coal and other supplies.
And so that brings us to the fateful night when sea weary Captain Williams went to bed, as the ship sailed towards Halifax.
As the SS Atlantic sailed towards an unfamiliar coast panicked forward lookouts yelled that there were breakers ahead.
Capt. Williams had left Senior Officer Henry Metcalf — the one who got the job because of his cousin, Thomas Ismay, the founder of the White Star Line — and third officer, Cornelius Brady, in charge when he went to sleep. You’ll remember that Metcalf and the more experienced Brady were to be on the lookout for a stationary light on the horizon but were hindered by the stormy conditions.
Only now did Metcalf realize that the ship was not heading into Halifax harbour, and so he gave the order to go hard to starboard, followed by an order to the engine room to go full astern. As Captain William slept, at 3:15 a.m. on April 1, the ship slammed into Golden Rule Rock off the coast of Marr’s Head, Nova Scotia.
Passengers and crew rushed to the deck to see what happened. Captain Williams bolted the bridge, and ordered full astern again to reverse the ship off the rocks.
But before this could happen, a wave hit the ship pushing it further onto the rock, Now the port side faced the sea, and its starboard side faced the shore. Below the ship has been torn open like a tin can. Anchor chains dropped to keep the ship from drifting.
The sudden loss of momentum created a slipstream in the gas pipes. It rushed through the vessel, putting out all the lamps and leaving everyone in utter darkness.
Metcalf ordered all lifeboats on the port side to be swung out in hopes of getting passengers off board, but Captain Williams stopped him, saying it was suicide due to the high waves. Instead, he ordered the passengers out of the one lifeboat that had been loaded but Metcalf apparently refused and had it lowered, with several men, into the sea. Almost as soon as the boat hit the water, a wave smashed it against the hull, killing everyone on board.
With no other option, Captain Williams decided that since the ship was partly on the rock and not sinking, he asked that everyone be moved on deck.
Stewards went through the boat waking passengers, while two quartermasters opened a crate of flares and launched them into the sky calling for help As the flares lit up the sky a wave forced the propeller to hit the rock hard, shearing the blade and causing the propeller shaft to overspin shifting the stern of the Atlantic. The engines were shut down, and the engine and boiler rooms evacuated.
Before leaving, the safety valves on the boilers were opened to allow the pressurized steam to escape and prevent an explosion.
Without the stabilizing force of the rudder and propeller, the ship began to rock heavily under the crashing waves.
The ship shifted and slid off the rock. And with that The SS Atlantic began to sink.
Newspapers later reported that men pushed women out of the way to flee the ship, and husband’s abandoned families and that the calls of “woman and children first” were ignored.
In truth, how the ship sank played a major role in who survived, and who died
As the lower decks began to flood, hundreds of passengers were trapped in the rapidly rising water in the aft section of the ship.
Due to the complete darkness, panic ensued as steerage passengers felt water rising at their feet and had no idea what was happening.
Before long, they drowned in the passageways and cabins.
If you remember single men were housed in the bow of the show and fared better as they were able to get out through portholes and by smashing windows.
This is probably why only men survived.
With the aft section of the ship now completely underwater, the ship began tipping towards its port side.
John Firth, the Chief Officer, told passengers on the ship to climb onto the masts and yardarms to protect themselves from the freezing cold water crashing on to the deck.
Passengers held onto the masts and yardarms, but their hands quickly went numb.
Without options or lifeboats, passengers jumped into the water, or climbed down ropes to the wave-swept rock, hoping to make their way ashore.
The lives of many passengers were saved thanks to Brady, the Third Officer, and Quartermaster John Speakman, who tied a line to a rock that allowed those on board to get off the ship by climbing down the line.
Even then, some who left the ship this way fell and drowned in the water.
Meanwhile on Marrs Island, Michael Clancy was asleep in the only home on the island
The sound of the ship crashing ashore woke him and. He quickly mobilized his brother and son.
Seeing the ship in danger, Clancy hauled out his 24-foot boat from his property where it was being worked on and headed towards the water. By 6 a.m. three hours after the crash, he was in the water, joined by two other boats to aid in the rescue effort. What many on the ship did not know was that Robert Thomas, one of the quartermasters, was thrown from the ship when it hit the rock and had washed ashore on another nearby island.
He quickly ran to the closest farmhouse, the home of the O’Reilly family, who were already awake.
As small boats headed towards the ship, they found there was no safe way to land. They were forced to have people in the water, holding the boats to keep them steady, and away from the rocks. Locals then began fishing people out of the water and hauled them into the boat.
Meanwhile on the sinking ship, passengers attempted to free those trapped inside by using any tools they could find.
Through smashing of windows, doors, and portholes, a further 100 men were rescued from the bow of the ship. Those who were rescued were transported to the O’Reilly’s home. Sarah O’Reilly, the oldest daughter, helped nearly 400 people at one point or another. Her mother was crippled and could not help, so Sarah took it upon herself to do what she could. It was said that there was so much water from soaking wet passengers t, that they had to bore holes in the floor to drain it. According to the Boston Globe in 1937, Sarah was awarded 20 gold pieces and a gold locket for her services.
Amid the rescues, Chief Officer John Firth, passenger Rosa Bateman and an unnamed crew member, spent the whole night high up in the mizzen mast of the ship. They were too high to be rescued too tired to climb down or jump into the water, they were left with no options
Reverend William Ancient was awoken by the sound of the ship’s rockets and raced to the wreck site. When he heard that there were still three people trapped in the mizzen, he rowed out with other residents to attempt a rescue. They steadied their boat below and the cabin boy jumped into the water. The boy had a rope tied around him when he was rescued that led up to Firth.
Firth then jumped and was hauled into the boat with the rope. Rosa Bateman however was tied to the mast to stop her from being swept out to sea and before she could be rescued, she died from hypothermia. For his heroics, Reverend Ancient was awarded a gold pocket watch.
Rescue attempts continued but by the time the ship sank the next day, every woman and almost every child had died. The only exception was John Hindley, a 12-year-old boy. Hindley survived because he begged his mother and father to let him sleep in the men’s quarters with his older brother at the bow of the ship. This change in sleeping arrangement saved his life, because the children’s quarters were completely submerged in the water.
Of the 952 people on board, 835 were passengers, 14 stowaways, only 429 survived, all of them men. Of the 141 crew, only ten died. At the time, this was the worst loss of civilian life in the North Atlantic.
In the afternoon of April 1, 1873, the Atlantic slipped completely off the rocks, broke in half, and sank beneath the waves. For weeks, bodies washed up on shore. Divers were paid to recover as many bodies trapped in the hull as they could. Once the dead and cargo had been retrieved, local residents took anything that was of value from the ship. There are, sadly, stories of stiffened fingers on corpses being cut off to remove gold rings to be sold later.
The Canadian government launched an inquiry into the disaster. The inquiry stated,
“The conduct of Captain Williams in the management of his ship during the 12 or 14 hours preceding the disaster, was so gravely at variance with what ought to have been the conduct of a man placed in his responsible position.”
Captain Williams was found guilty of mismanagement of the ship and poor command of his crew. He took most of the blame, but the court did praise him for his leadership and direction during the disaster. Captain Williams broke down and sobbed several times when he was later interviewed by the New York Journal.
I couldn’t find what happened to Captain Williams after the SS Atlantic disaster, but it is likely he never commanded another ship again.
Today, most of the heavily fragmented ship sits 12 to 18 metres below the water. Scavenged items can be found at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, and the SS Atlantic Heritage Park in Terence Bay.
A monument, donated by Thomas Henry Ismay, is located at the mass grave near the centre of the park.
That’s the end of the story of the SS Atlantic but there’s one more story I think you should know about
A few months after the sinking of the SS Atlantic, Third Officer Cornelius Brady was on the American Line flagship, the Pennsylvania, travelling from Liverpool to Philadelphia.
The ship was not large, with only 13 passengers, and a few crew members.
Of note was the $250,000 in cargo on board.
For five days, the ship was battered by a serious storm and on the night of Feb. 27-28, a wave struck the ship and carried with it the bridge, wheelhouse and five crew members including the captain, and his first and second officers.
Third Officer Charles Rivers was the only surviving officer, but he had never served on a steamer before.
He refused to take command of the ship and left the quartermaster of the midship’s wheelhouse in charge.
Brady was onboard the ship, but he was only a passenger.
He had been helping an unnamed carpenter when the wave hit. and when he learned that the ship was essentially under no one’s command, he took charge and issued orders and lead the ship and crew as they weathered the storm.
The next morning, the storm broke and he commanded the ship safely into a port in Delaware.
Rivers was relieved of his post, and Brady was given $1,000 as a thanks by the board of directors of American Line.
Today, that amounts to about $27,000.
Information: White Star History, Nova Scotia Archives, Wikipedia, The Boston Globe, Encyclopedia Titanic, Norway Heritage,