City of Columbus Disaster
By James Donahue
The wreck of the City of Columbus on the New England coast on January 17, 1884 claimed 104 lives and brought down the
Boston and Savannah Steamship Company. It was a senseless disaster that never sould have happened but for a decision by the
captain to turn command over to an incompetent subordinate.
The City of Columbus was a five-year-old iron hulled 275-foot steamship, one of four vessels built for the passenger
runs between Boston, New York and Savannah. It was on the first leg of a regular trip from Boston, Captain Schuyler E. Wright
at the helm, when the steamer hit Devils Bridge, a rocky shoal extending into Vineyard Sound off Cape Cod.
The collision tore the bottom out of the steamer. Captain Wright was unaware of the seriousness of the damage to his
command when he ordered the engines reversed. As soon as the ship moved off into deep water it quickly sank so that only its
bow, two masts and funnel were visible above the water line.
The steamer sank so quickly that there was no time to send a distress message. The boilers were flooded so not even
the whistle could be blown. The ship listed sharply to port, but then settled in an upright position on the bottom. The accident
happened just after 3 a.m. so most of the passengers were caught asleep in their cabins. Those that did try to escape quickly
died of exposure in the bitter cold January waters.
Some people scrambled up into the rigging on the masts where they clung until they froze to death. Two lifeboats were
launched, but both were swamped. One boat escaped with five people in it and the second drifted off empty. One man swam to
the empty lifeboat and was still alive in it to be rescued the following morning by the tug Speedwell.
In the end, only 29 passengers and crew members escaped alive. Rescue efforts were not begun until the following morning
when the wreck was seen from shore at the Gay Head Lighthouse. The local lifesaving station sent boats to the scene and the
Revenue Cutter Samuel Dexter pulled alongside to assist in taking survivors from the rigging of the ship’s masts.
Captain Wright, who was among the survivors, was blamed for the disaster by a board of inquiry. His license as master
and pilot was revoked.
The disaster left the Savannah Steamship Line in financial ruin. The company was taken over by the Ocean Steamship
The City of Columbus was launched in 1878 for the Ocean Steamship Company. The vessel, and a sister ship, Gate City,
were purchased by the Nickerson Company of Boston in 1882. They became the flagships for the newly established Boston and
Savannah Steamship Company.
In weekly sailings between the two ports, the two steamships carried both passengers and cargo, mostly cotton from
the south to the textile mills of New England, and manufactured goods from Boston southward.