Little Bits of History

September 27

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 27, 2017

1854: SS Arctic sinks. She was built by the Collins Line, an American shipping company founded in 1818 and famous for transatlantic ship building. They were comparable to the Cunard line of Britain. At the time, both companies were bringing cargo and passengers across the Atlantic Ocean using steamships. The Arctic was a nearly 3,000 ton paddle steamer which was completed in 1850, going into service in October of that year. The ship was 284 feet long and was carrying about 400 people aboard, 250 passengers and 150 crew, on this fateful day. She was on a crossing to New York from Liverpool. Arctic was famous for her speed and luxury of accommodations.

It was just after noon and foggy as the Arctic was traveling about 50 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. The SS Vesta, a smaller French ship was a propeller driven, iron-hulled steamship, weighing only 250 tons and measuring just 152 feet long. The two ships collided and a ten foot section of Vesta’s bow was sheared off. The much larger ship seemed to have sustained little damage. Vesta’s watertight bulkhead behind the bow remained intact. James Luce, Captain of the Arctic, had initially turned to help rescue Vesta but then soon found out his own ship had sustained damage.

Vesta had struck the starboard side of the ship, between the bow and the paddle wheel. The impact had the passengers feeling just a slight bump, but soon it was found that debris from Vesta’s iron stem as well as the anchor were impaled in Arctic’s wooden hull, creating a substantial hole about 18 inches above the waterline. The ship was taking on water as there were also two breaches below the waterline and the ship started to list. Luce made a decision to head for land as quickly as possible with pumps trying to get rid of the onrush of water.

It was unsuccessful and as the crisis loomed, the call to abandon ship was given. The crew lowered the lifeboats, which had only enough capacity to hold about half the number of people aboard ship. They then got into the boats and as panic ensued, able bodied men were able to push through the crowds and also enter the boats. Some of the crew attempted to build a raft prior to the ship’s sinking. The ship sank in about four hours. Luce went down with the ship, but was able to swim up to the surface and use debris as a raft. Only 88 people survived, 24 male passengers and 61 crew. All women and children aboard died. Only two of the six lifeboats made it to safety while a third one was picked up at sea, as were some of those stranded in the icy waters. No one was called to account for the disaster. This and a few more maritime disasters led to the Collins Line going out of business in 1858.

If you ever wish to cross the Atlantic, you will find in the Arctic one of the noblest of ships, and in Captain Luce one of the best of commanders. – from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

[We heard} one fearful shriek, and saw the passengers swept forward against the smokestack, and then all was over. – Paul Grann, a survivor in one of the lifeboats

A most awful and heart-rending scene presented itself to my view—over two hundred men, women and children struggling together amidst pieces of wreck of every kind, calling on each other for help, and imploring God to assist them. Such an appalling scene may God preserve me from ever witnessing again. – Captain Luce, after surfacing (and having lost his son to the drag of the waters)

The whole time I had been in the water I had not eaten a particle of anything or drank a drop … my sight had become so dim that I could not perceive objects a few feet off, even the ghastly faces of the dead that looked up at me from under the raft … – Peter McCabe, a survivor



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