Monday, November 16, 2020

The SS Arctic & The SS Pacific of the Collins Line

The SS Pacific 1849

The first SS Pacific of note to have vanished did so in 1856. In that case, the SS Pacific was a wooden-hulled, sidewheel steamer built in 1849 specifically as a part of the transatlantic service with the Collins Line. It was a steamship that was designed strictly to outclass its British rival which was specifically the Cunard Line. The SS Pacific and her three sister ships were considered the largest and fastest transatlantic steamships of their day.

That SS Pacific, which should not to be confused with the SS Pacific that went down off the Washington state coast in 1875, started out setting a new transatlantic speed record in her first year of service. But then, mysteriously, only after five years in operation in the Atlantic, she disappeared. It's true. On January 23, 1856, while on a voyage from Liverpool, England, to New York, her crew, and 200 passengers simply vanished and were never seen again. 

She was commanded by Captain Asa Eldridge of Yarmouth, Massachusetts. Yes, he was a true Cape Cod skipper with a great reputation as a good captain and a superb navigator. Capt. Eldridge was born on July 25, 1809. He was the son of Capt. John Eldridge, who was ship captain of with his own slendid reputation. It's said that as with most all Cape Cod boys of the time, young Asa Eldridge went to sea early and worked his way up to command what can only be considered many fine ships. He sailed for years with the Dramatic Line and then with the Collins Line both of which belonged to American shipping magnate E.K. Collins out of Massachusetts and New York.

Edward Knight Collins was a shipping magnate who I find very interesting simply because of the ups and downs of his life. He was born in 1802 and went from this business to that, until 1836 when he launched the Dramatic Line of sailing ships. Actually, "sailing packets" to be correct. The packet trade of the transatlantic was all about shipping regularly scheduled cargo, passenger, and mail trade by ship. The ships are called "packet boats" or "sailing packets" because their original function was to carry "packets of mail." A "packet ship" was originally a vessel employed to carry post office mail packets to and from British colonies, as well as British embassies, across around the world. 

American shipper E.K Collins's main transatlantic competition was Great Britain's Cunard Line. Though he grew to have a huge share of what was considered "the world’s most important shipping route" of the day, that route between New York and Liverpool, he received a U.S. government subsidy in 1847 to carry mail on that route.

Known as the "Collins Line," its inaugural voyage took place in April 1850. Because of the cost to build and operate bigger steamships, and the fact that his ships were considered to be the biggest, fastest, and most luxurious on the Atlantic, Collins went back to Congress for an increase in his subsidy for carrying mail in 1852. His line had four steamships, the SS Atlantic, SS ArcticSS Baltic, and the SS Pacific

The SS Arctic 1850

As for the SS Arctic, her last commander was Captain James F. Luce who was said to have been a very experienced ship's captain. Over the years, the ship gained a reputation as being one of the fastest ocean liners of her day. In fact, in February of 1852,  she set a record when she reached Liverpool in 9 days, 17 hours, which was thought to be extremely exceptional -- especially considering it was a winter crossing. During that time, the SS Arctic became the most famous ship of the Collins Line. Those were the days when she was known as the "Clipper of the Sea."

The SS Arctic sunk in 1854. It was on September 27, 1854, while en route to New York from Liverpool, that the SS Arctic collided with the much smaller French-owned SS Vesta about 50 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. While there were problems later determining who was actually aboard the SS Arctic, it's believed that she had about 250 passengers and 150 crewmen aboard when she went down. The tale of her sinking shook society at the time. 

In accordance with the maritime regulations of the day, the SS Arctic did in fact only carry six lifeboats, the total capacity of which was around 180 people. Remember, there were about 400 people aboard. That number included women and children. Sadly as it is, it wouldn't be until after the sinking of the White Star Line's RMS Titanic in 1912 that the issue of not having enough lifeboats would be addressed by the authorities who put forth those maritime regulations on both sides of the Atlantic.

On that September day in 1854, Capt. Luce ordered the lifeboats launched. It was soon after his order given that he realized that his crewmen along with several male passengers piled into the lifeboats. Yes, that included the French Ambassador who was en route to New York. He is said to have jumped from the ship to get into one of the last lifeboats.

Everyone else was left to survive the frigid water on makeshift rafts. Of course, the women and children aboard were simply left to die. When many of us think about those days, we think of chivalry and self-sacrifice, the essence of doing the right thing. That was not the case that day. No, not at all. Cowardice and self-preservation prevailed over goodness and honor. 

Unable to leave the ship, those who didn't crowd into the lifeboats simply went down with the ship when she finally slipped away and sank four hours after the collision. Captain Luce, himself, unlike his crew, knew his duty and initially went down with his ship. Yes, initially. The fact is, he survived. Captain Luce had resurfaced after initially going down with the ship. Imagine that. It's something that I've never heard of ever happening. And by the way, when he was rescued later, it was lucky for him that he was found. The fact is, it was after two days of searching that his half-dead body was found clinging to a piece of the wreckage -- actually the paddle-wheel box.

Of the six lifeboats? Two of the six lifeboats safely reached the Newfoundland shore. One lifeboat was retrieved from the ocean by a passing steamer that joined the search for survivors. A few survivors were in fact rescued clinging on to their make-shift rafts. Some didn't make it and died. As for the other three lifeboats, no one knows what became of them because they disappeared without a trace.

Of the 85 survivors of the sinking of the SS Arctic, 61 were crew members and 24 were young male passengers. All of which would be a disservice to men everywhere if they were called "men." Of the more than 300 lives lost, almost all were women and children. In fact, what's shamefully true about the sinking of the SS Arctic is that all the women and children on board perished. Among those lost was the wife and two children of Edward Collins himself. He lost his entire family that day.  

I find it interesting how the public's grief quickly turned to rage and condemnation of the crew as the full story started to survive. Accounts started to come forward of how the lifeboats were launched in an atmosphere of panic among a crew that completely ignored the basic principle of "women and children first." 

The cowardice of the crew, and their dereliction of duty towards their passengers, soon reflected on all sailors and not simply that horrid group of worthless individuals that made-up the crew of the SS Arctic. Formal inquiries were demanded by many. The public wanted authorities to look into the disaster. Americans wanted to know about the sorry actions of the crew. Some called for the crew to be hanged. But in the end, no formal inquiry was held beyond the insurance investigation. And sadly, for the sake of justice, not one of the crew was ever called to account for their actions. 

As for that crew, Captain Luce was exonerated from any blame and retired from the sea. It's said that the American crewmen who survived the SS Arctic sinking, those responsible for letting women and children drown, chose to stay in Canada instead of returning home to the United States. Many didn't want to return in fear for their lives as some called for retribution.

Less than two years later in 1856, the Collins Line's SS Pacific disappeared without a trace on her way from Liverpool to New York. Over a hundred years later in 1991, a ship's wreckage was found off the coast of Wales, and many claimed that wreckage was the SS Pacific, I read where there was a question whether the wreckage was indeed the SS Pacific

The problem with identifying that discovered wreckage as the SS Pacific had to do with there not being anything to corroborate that it was the lost vessel. Also, over the years that wreckage has proven to be a ship that may have been lost to the sea in the late-1860s or later because of some of the dated artifacts that have been recovered.
As for the mystery of that SS Pacific, there is a story about how someone is said to have once found a message in a bottle. Yes, a message in a bottle, right off the west coast of mainland Scotland in 1861. Supposedly, the note said the SS Pacific hit an iceberg and sunk. Is that story real considering all hands and passengers were lost and there was never a trace of any debris, cargo, personal effects, or bodies? No one knows for certain.

That was 1856, the same year that Congress canceled their increased subsidy of the Collins Line. With two of its Line's four steamships sank and the subsidies ended, the Collins Line struggled until it simply could not make ends meet. By February of 1858,  the Collins Line shut their doors and folded up. 

As for Edward Collins himself, he moved to his summer home which was known as "Collinswood" located in Wellsville, Ohio. It's said he dabbled in coal and oil for a while. He then remarried and by 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, he moved to New York City. 

On January 22, 1878, almost 22 years to the day that he lost his first wife and children in the sinking of the SS Arctic, and almost 20 years since losing the Collins Line, he died. As for the rest of the story? Well, believe it or not, it's said that the once-wealthy shipping magnate E.K. Collins is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. Yes, an unmarked grave. Imagine that.

Tom Correa

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