The Great Atlantic Disaster Off Halifax
By James Donahue
During the early years of steamboats, there
were two major disasters involving luxury liners bearing the name Atlantic.
The first happened on Lake Erie in 1852 when
a fine new side wheeled steamship Atlantic collided with the Ogdenburg and sank off Long Point, An estimated 250 passengers
and crew members perished.
Then in 1873, the White Star Line’s
fine new steamship Atlantic got caught in a storm on the North Atlantic, attempted to enter Halifax harbor, struck a large
rock and sank, taking more than half of the 900 souls on its decks to their deaths.
The two disasters were so grievous . . .
both of them records in terms of lives lost . . . that the name was blasted in bold black type across the front pages of the
newspapers of their day.
The White Star Line’s Atlantic was
the fourth of a quartet of sister-ships that launched the line’s efforts to compete for passenger trade between England
and New York on the North Atlantic. The sister ships were the Oceanic, Republic and Baltic.
Launched at Belfast, Ireland, in 1871, the
Atlantic was a four mast clipper ship equipped with a steam powered engine that drove a single propeller in the stern. She
was 420 feet long, had a capacity to carry 1,166 passengers and a crew of 166, and could maintain a speed of 14.5 knots. But
like so many of the early steamships built for the trans-Atlantic passenger service, this ship had a relatively short career
and a disastrous end.
On her nineteenth voyage in the spring of
1873, with Capt. J. H. Williams at the helm, the Atlantic sailed from Liverpool with 28 first class, 761 steerage passengers
and 142 crew members. The ship bucked a chain of strong storms from the west and was still 460 miles from New York and was
running out of coal. Captain Williams turned for Halifax, only 170 miles away, to refuel.
It was a fatal decision since Williams was
unfamiliar with the waters off Halifax and his ship was already blown so far off course, and because the stars were obscured
by clouds, he could only guess where he was. Consequently he ran the Atlantic at full speed on Marr’s Rock off Meaghers
Island, Nova Scotia, during the early morning hours of April 1.
The ship’s hull was cracked open and
it began sinking so fast lifeboats were washed away before they could be lowered. People were washed overboard. Third officer
Cornelius Brady and Quartermasters Owens and Speakman succeeded in getting lines from the wreck to the rocks and many people
saved themselves by following the ropes to the rocks and then to shore.
Other people climbed into the rigging of
the masts and hung there, enduring the exposure to wind and seas until the first rescue boats from shore arrived at dawn.
By then, some in the rigging were found frozen to death.
An estimated 562 passengers perished in the
wreck. The dead included all 156 women and 188 of the 189 children listed in the ship’s manifest. Nearly every member
of the crew survived. It was the worse civilian loss of life in the Northern Atlantic in recorded history up to that time.
At least one crew member died in the wreck.
It is recorded that as the bodies were recovered and prepared for burial, it was discovered that this crew member known as
“Bill” was actually a woman. Shipmates said she had served as a common sailor for three voyages and her sex was
never known until the body washed ashore.
The Canadian government investigated the
wreck and concluded that “the conduct of Captain Williams in the management of his ship during the twelve or fourteen
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 board of inquiry concluded that the ship left England with an insufficient supply of coal and had been
negligently navigated in unfamiliar waters.
Williams’ master’s certificate
was suspended for two years.