|The S/S Atlantic of the White Star Line, disaster in 1873
Dec. 2003, revised Aug. 2005, May 2006 - Trond Austheim and Børge Solem
The S/S Atlantic was Built in Belfast by Harland & Wolff in 1870. She had a tonnage of 3,707 gross tons. She had a single screw, compound engine with 4 cylinders delivering 600 horse power. She also had 4 masts rigged for sail as can be seen on the picture. Her length was 420 feet, breadth 40 feet, and depth 31 feet.
Picture of the S/S Atlantic, from an old engraving
According to the Illustrated London News she left the Mersey (Liverpool) on her 19th voyage on Tuesday March 20th 1873 with several hundred passengers for New York, and called the next day at Queenstown, where 250 more passengers embarked. She then set out for New York with 957 persons on board (number from the official Canadian report), of whom 833 were passengers. It should be mentioned that the numbers of persons varies in different sources. In the article below you will find the numbers given in the original sources, which are mainly contemporary newspaper reports. The Illustrated London News reported that the ship had 32 saloon and 615 steerage passengers on board, the latter being 448 males and 167 females. Of these 198 were adult English males, 74 females, 21 male children, 16 female children and 12 infants; there were 7 Scotch male and 4 female adults; 33 Irish male adults, 18 females, and 3 children (not corresponding to the 250 in number saying to have embarked at Queenstown); 150 male foreigners (all non British), 32 females, 14 male and 16 female children, and 7 infants. Among the "foreign" passengers were several Norwegian emigrants which had departed from Christiania (Oslo) on March 14th. Many of them were among the deceased. Of the 957 passengers aboard, 545 lost their lives. The officers and crew numbered 143 according to ILN.
At Queenstown the captain, engineers, and purser dispatched letters home to the owners, reporting everything to be "more then usually satisfactory". The engines were reported to be working well, the coals were described as better then previous supplies, and the purser reported everything well in connection with the passengers.
Om March 31st there was a storm threatening, and according to the captain they were heading for Halifax because the ship was low on coal. On March 31st captain Williams and third officer C. L. Brady were at the bridge till midnight, there was heavy seas and it was very dark. At 2 o'clock in the night on April 1st, the ship struck an underwater rock. Quartermaster Reynalds, had just prior to this logged a true speed of 12 knots. The officers and crew immediately rushed on deck, and tried to get the 10 lifeboats out by chopping the ropes with axes, but the lifeboats were washed away, as the ship was sinking and the seas washed over the deck. 20 persons were killed on the deck when the bow on the foremast came loose and turned. A lot of people drowned on the half-deck when the entrance was blocked by panicking passengers trying to get up. With few exceptions married men refused to leave their wives behind, and preferred to die with them, event though they could have been rescued by climbing up the rig. Parts of the rig remained over the surface after the ship went under, and those who could, climbed up and clung to the rig. Distress signals (rockets) had been fired every one minute, but without any results. The top of the rock, which was sticking up over the surface, was 40 yards away from the ship, officer Brady and two quartermasters brought a rope ashore. Brady then succeeded in getting ashore on a near by island (Mars [Meagher's?] Island), by using four 200 ft ropes. About 50 persons managed to get ashore by using the ropes, but many drowned while trying. At 6 o'clock in the morning Brady made contact with the local residents on the island, and 3 boats were set out. Many of the people on the rock, and from the rig were thus rescued. Some of those clinging to the rig had died from the cold, among them the ship's cashier. The rescue operation lasted till midday, when all who were still alive had been rescued, except for officer Firth, who was still clinging to the rig, and could not be rescued due to the rough seas.
Third officer Brady and fisherman Clancy
holding the rope by means of which the rescued got from the ship to the shore.
(Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper Apr. 1873)
The contemporary newspapers reported that the ships' officers were mainly to blame for the accident. Quartermaster Thomas had stated at the inquiries, that he had warned 1st mate Metcalf against keeping too close to land, but Metcalf ignored his warnings. Thomas had then addressed 4th mate Brown, and suggested that they should go up to keep lookout, as if not, they would not be able to see land before they struck it. Brown answered that this was not necessary. Thomas was at the rudder when the lookout before the mast shouted "ice ahead". The course was immediately changed and the engine reversed full power, but instantly the ship ran on to the rock.
There were speculations in the newspapers, saying that the accident was caused because the Captain and mate had mistaken Sambro light for being Devil's light, which is further to the west. It was also said that when the Atlantic called at Queenstown, to take aboard additional passengers, there had been strong reactions to the ship leaving England low on coal. However, the ship's owners in Liverpool claimed that the Atlantic had departed England carrying 996 tons of coal, and that was 260 tons more than what she needed for the crossing to New York. According to reports in the "Times", the Captain claimed that the accident was caused by miscalculations of the ship's speed and curant. He had calculated the speed to be 11 knots per hour, but is must have been faster, as the ship would not have been so far off course if not. The captain also claimed that he had only 127 tons of coal left on Monday the 31st of March. He had then decided to go to Halifax for bunkering, as stormy weather was waited ahead. He stated that 460 miles off Sandy Hook he had 127 tons of coal left. It had been estimated that the ship should arrive at New York on April 1st, but the ship had made little progress after encountering unfavorable weather.
Coast outline from prospect to Halifax, showing vessel’s course as printed in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper Apr. 1873
The value of the ship was estimated to 150.000£ sterling, and the cargo to another 50.000£ sterling. Among those who drowned there were about 200 English subjects, 70 Irish, and a hugh number of people of other nationalities. About 70 children and 100 women died, two of the children had been born on the voyage. Among the 250 saved were Capt. Williams, Officers Brady and Brown, the ships surgeon, and several of engine crew, but not a single of the women or children. Of the first cabin passengers only 4 were rescued. It was first estimated that about 780 persons had drowned, almost all of them laying in their berths. By April 2nd more than 100 bodies had been recovered. It later became clear that the first estimated number of deceased was exaggerated. A dispatch from Philadelphia on April 3rd, stated that 336 survivors had been brought to Halifax, and another 77 of the survivors had been taken up by the S/S Lady Head. The new estimated number of deceased then were 546, and survivors 413. The survivors at Halifax were transported from Halifax on April 3rd to Portland, Maine, on the steamer Falmouth, thence by rail to Boston. At Faneuil Hall, in that city, the mayor and other prominent officials were present to receive the shipwrecked men, and hospitably entertained them. Several large tables were spread for breakfast, of which the unfortunate guests partook heartily. After refreshment they passed their time in the hall, talking, letter-writing, and describing their misfortunes to such gentlemen as were permitted to enter.
By April 4th 167 bodies had been recovered, among them the cabin passengers Hewitts, Prices, Marrits and Sumners.
The White Star Line agent in Christiania, Frederik Lie, received a telegram from Liverpool, dated April 8th, saying that among the passengers he had enrolled from Norway, C. E. Gram and P. Paulsen had perished, and among passengers enrolled by C. Hansen only Ole J. Nielsen and Conrad Corneliusen had been rescued. The following passengers had been expedited from Christiania on March 14th to board the Atlantic in Liverpool:
C. M. Petersen (#37 rescued), Peter Hansen (#20 rescued), Anton Gram (?), from Fredrikshald: Johan Carlsen (#12 rescued), Theodor Carlsen (?), P. Paulsen (#57 deceased ?), from Røken: Hans Hansen (#17 rescued?), from Bohuslän: Carl E. Anderson (#10 deceased?), from Drammen: Hans Bjørndalen (?), C. E. Gram (add. deceased), from Christiania C. Hoff (?), from Christiansand: Anne Marie Gunvaldsen (#30 deceased), Tomine Andersen (#7 deceased), Ole J. Nielsen (#34 rescued), Reimert Tønnesen (#67 deceased), Olivia Amundsen (#49 deceased), Anders Jacobsen (#38 deceased), Conrad Corneliusen (rescued), Martin Bjørnsen (#18 deceased), Knut Tomson (?).
(those from this list identified on the below indexes of deceased and rescued passengers are listed in bold, some from the above list could not be found on any of the below lists)
The victims of the accident were buried on two different locations. While doing research on the S/S Atlantic, I had the pleasure of finding the web site of Sheevaun Nelson "Lost At Sea", and she has kindly granted us permission to use her pictures and to quote from her web site the following about the burial sites:
Agent Lie was authorized to convey emigrants by steamship via Hull and from Hull to Liverpool, and from there to New York by White Star Line and on to the final destination in America. The Norwegian passengers On the S/S Atlantic probably departed on the S/S Albion of the Wilson Line for London. The Albion called at Christiansand before going to London. The emigrants would have to travel by train from London to Liverpool. Departure from Christiania was March 14th. On May 2nd agent Lie published a list with the names and destiny of the Norwegian passengers on the S/S Atlantic in the newspaper:
It was later claimed that there had been a disciplinary problem with the crew of the S/S Atlantic. During a storm on March 27th, some of the crew attempted to brake into the room where the alcoholic beverages were kept. It was also reported that when the boats came out to the wreck to rescue the people in the rig, some of the sailors used force against the passengers to be rescued them selves first. It was also reported that several of the deceased had been plundered.
Immediately after the intelligence of the disaster was received by the Department, the Dominion government steamer Lady Head proceeded to the wreck for the purpose of rendering any assistance possible and bringing the rescued passengers to Halifax. The Canadian government demanded an investigation of the circumstances around the accident. On the recommendation of the Minister of Marine, Mr. E.M. Macdonald, the Collector of Customs at Halifax, was appointed to hold a Court or Tribunal under the fifth section of the Act 32 and 33 Vict., cap. 38, to investigate into the cause of the disaster. Mr. E.M. Macdonald concluded in his report that"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".
The Court censured the captain by suspending his certificate for two years for his conduct previous to the disaster. Mr. Brown, the fourth officer, was censured for want of vigilance, and for violation of the captain's orders by suspending his certificate for three months.
After the accident a diving company from New York had sent equipment to the place of the wreckage to save as much as possible of ship and cargo, and to recover the bodies of the drowned. On May 11th 1873, the Norwegian newspaper "Morgenbladet" reported that the wreck had been blown open and lots of goods, and 349 bodied had been recovered. The S/S Atlantic went down between Terence Bay and Prospect, Nova Scotia. Much of the wreck is still resting on a slope between 20 and 75 feet down from the surface, buried in the sand at the bottom of the slope.
Picture of the Atlantic, White Star Line steamship, from an old engraving