S.S. Atlantic: the White Star Line's first disaster

I've always had a fascination with the ocean steam liners of the late Victorian and Edwardian era. especially, of course, Titanic. And fairly recently, I ordered a book from Titanic Historical Society called S.S. Atlantic: the White Star Line's First Disaster at Sea by Greg Cochkanoff and Bob Chaulk, and just got around to reading it this week. I'm really glad I got it because it's a little-known story of tragedy and heroism, and also because the book is now apparently out of print. It's available on Amazon... well, kind of -- the prices are insane. I'm taking screenshots in case the prices change later:




These sellers have the chutzpah to actually charge for shipping on top of their ridiculously over-inflated prices. Shame on them.

Anyway... what follows is a very high-level overview of the S.S. Atlantic and what happened to her. I would ordinarily suggest reading this book for more detailed information, but... yeah.

The very first steam-powered ships came about in the 1840s, and the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, more famously known as The White Star Line, was founded in 1845. The early steam ships of the mid to late Victorian era still had sails, in case of emergencies. Unlike modern cruise ships,  whose main purpose is to entertain and take passengers to some touristy resort place before taking them back, the main purpose of ocean liners was transportation: carrying people between the Old World and the New. Many Europeans sought a new life in the United States, and transporting these people was big business.

In 1863, the White Star Line was acquired by Thomas Henry Ismay (does that surname sound familiar?), whose father had been shipbuilder, and Thomas followed in his footsteps. He was president of WSL until his death in 1899, when the business was taken over by his son J. Bruce Ismay of Titanic infamy.

The S.S. Atlantic was one of six nearly identical ships referred to as the “Oceanic” class (along with Oceanic, Baltic, Republic, Celtic, and Adriatic) which made the North Atlantic run from Liverpool to Jersey City (not yet Manhattan). And, while not nearly as famous as her later cousins, her demise marked the first disaster of a White Star Line ship.

Ismay was by all accounts a fair and decent man who wanted his ships, unlike those of the past, to be as comfortable as possible for all. Before the 1860s, the poor who were able to scrape enough money to buy steerage passage on board a ship bound for America would find conditions below decks, where they were kept, to be horrible. Disease was rife; the weak, old, and very young sometimes didn't survive the weeks-long journey. Imagine dark, cramped, poorly ventilated quarters... and then imagine people in said cramped quarters who were unaccustomed to sea travel getting sick.. and there being no toilets. Thomas Henry Ismay, though, had three bathrooms for steerage passengers, and three meals a day were provided with one's ticket; before then, you had to bring your own food. Private baths were not yet a thing for even cabin class passengers.

On 31 March 1973, Atlantic was making her 19th crossing to America, carrying about one thousand passengers, most of them steerage (there were only two classes at this time: cabin class, which is basically first class, and steerage -- no second class or equivalent). The ship hit very bad storms, forcing her to slow her speed significantly. It was regulation to report to the captain each day how much coal the ship had, and the amount that Captain James A. Williams had been told was left was not going to be enough to get them to Jersey City. So he ordered that they detour into Halifax, Nova Scotia to refuel before continuing.

What Captain Williams didn't know was that they actually had plenty of coal; the ship's engineer was in the habit of purposely under-reporting coal reserves to be cautious. What harm could that do, right? Now the engineer found himself unable to give an accurate number to the captain because he'd have to explain where all this extra coal suddenly came from. And he couldn't admit that he had been lying in his reports either. So off to the rocky and treacherous Nova Scotia coast they steamed.

So at about 1 a.m. on 1 April, Captain Williams decided to take a nap. He left Second Officer Henry Metcalfe at the helm with instructions to be woken at 3 a.m., which was about when they were expecting to arrive at Halifax.

Unfortunately, the wind had blown them off course by several miles; they were nowhere near Halifax. The captain's orders to be roused at 3 a.m. were ignored, because Second Officer Metcalfe thought he had everything under control, so why not let the tired chap sleep? The Sambro Lighthouse they were looking for was nowhere to be seen, of course, so he figured they were still in deep ocean and thus had not reduced speed. But then, breakers were spotted. They were running right smack into the rocks off the coast of Meagher's Island.

Too late; Atlantic crashed into said rocks. The ship foundered quickly, rolling onto its port side. The first casualties were the single women, who were quartered in the stern. As their quarters flooded, they drowned within minutes.

Lifeboats were pretty much useless, as they and their passengers just smashed against the craggy formations. There was a nearby rock, not very big, to which many passengers swam for dear life. Many of those who were still stuck on the boat were helped to the slippery outcrop using ropes; Quartermaster John Speakman heroically used the ropes to go back to the sinking ship to bring passengers to “Golden Rule" rock. Its relative safety was only temporary; the morning tide would eventually rise over it.

A few had made it from the rock to the actual shore of Meagher's Island (now called Marr's Island), and locals were alerted. The people of the island jumped into action, rescuing survivors from the now-crowded rock in small boats and ferrying them to shore. They opened their homes to the poor wet, freezing passengers, gave them blankets and clothing, and nursed them as best they could.  A minister, Reverend W.J. Ancient, took a boat out to save some passengers, including First Officer Firth, who were stranded aboard part of the ship; no one else did so because it because such a rescue was deemed almost suicide. But Reverend Ancient was able to save him, putting himself in great peril in the process.

Sadly, mainly due to where women and families were housed, not a single female survived, and the only child to make it was 12-year-old John Hindley, who had been traveling with his parents. He was rescued, literally pulled up out of the boat by another passenger... but he was now an orphan.

Early April, 1873: the grim process of recovering the bodies of those who perished.


This was the first of White Star Line's many disasters; the company really didn't have a very good track record, did it?

To this day the Atlantic is remembered by the inhabitants of Marr's Island. May those who perished, and those heroes who saved and helped the survivors, never be forgotten.

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