The Day The Arizona Hit An Iceberg
By James Donahue
When we hear the name Arizona in relation to ocean ships, our thoughts go back to the Japanese attack
on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the sinking of the U.S. Navy’s battleship by that name. But there was another American steamship
that carried that name. She was the Guion Line’s "Greyhound Liner" Arizona remembered as the first of a new line of
passenger ships built for speed on the North Atlantic.
When it went into service in 1879, the Atlantic became the prototype for Atlantic express liners.
It was not long before the Inman and White Star Lines were building even bigger, faster and more elaborate ships and the race
was on for high speed steamship service between New York and European ports.
The Arizona was a luxury liner but the ship’s double-ended boilers and 39 furnaces consumer
135 tons of coal a day, thus providing less room for cargo and steerage passengers. The 450-foot-long ship also used sail
to help power the vessel. Because it was an American ship, and offered luxury rooms and dining, the Arizona enjoyed a brief
period of popularity even though both crew and passengers agreed that she was an uncomfortable ship at sea.
One descriptive report gives us some idea of the extremes that passenger ship builders went in that
period to turn the harsh environment of seagoing vessels into attractive floating hotels. The story said the saloon "contained
six long tables, with revolving chairs. A large dome-like aperture, with a skylight at the top, rose from the center of the
saloon, and was crossed by beams, supported by small pillars of polished wood, upon which were placed plants and flowers.
"The saloon extended the entire width of the vessel, and contained a fine piano at the forward end,
and a library at the after end. The state rooms were elegantly upholstered, and contained every facility for comfort. Pneumatic
bells connected all the state rooms with the steward’s pantry, which was situated just aft the main saloon. A richly-furnished
ladies’ boudoir was on the promenade deck, just aft of the forward wheel-house."
It was on November 7, 1879, that the Arizona made news when it drove its bow directly into an iceberg
while steaming from New York to Liverpool with some 300 passengers and crew members on board.
The steamer had been at sea for three days and was making good time. With sails set and her engines
operating at full power the Arizona was operating at its full speed of about 15 miles per hour. Captain Thomas Jones left
the bridge at 9 p.m., leaving the second officer, John Wynn Jones, at the helm for the evening. They said it was no more than
a few minutes after this that the ship slammed directly into a massive iceberg and came to a dead stop.
When the officers turned their lights on the obstacle that the ship had hit, they were shocked to
see the massive block of ice towering some 70 feet over the ship. The bow was crushed flat but miraculously none of the crew
members in the forecastle were killed or seriously hurt, and the forward bulkhead held, thus preventing the steamer from sinking.
There were some anxious moments before all of these facts were known, however. Panic enveloped the
passengers when it was obvious that the ship was "down by the head," a clear indication that forward portions of the ship
were flooded. An examination of the bulkhead, however, proved that it was going to hold back the sea.
A boat was lowered and the first officer conducted a careful examination of the breach in the bow.
It measured 20 feet wide by 30 feet deep. The weather was favorable, so the ship laid to for the night while the crew members
secured the bulkhead and made as many other repairs as possible. Then the Arizona limped back to St. John, Newfoundland, the
nearest port of refuge. Luckily the weather remained calm and the ship made port without further incident.
A board of inquiry determined that the accident happened because the Arizona’s lookouts had
been hanging back by the bridge, probably to keep warm, and were not at their assigned positions forward in the bows. Thus
they failed to spot the iceberg when it loomed before them in the night.
The Guion Line dissolved after owner Stephen Guion died in 1885. The line was reorganized as a public
stock corporation, but did not invest in new ships. The Arizona was laid up in Scotland until 1897 when it was sold to a British
firm that used it for a few Pacific voyages. At that time it was extensively rebuilt and the two funnels were replaced by
a single large funnel.
In 1902 the Arizona was acquired by the U. S. Navy for use as a receiving ship at the Brooklyn Navy
Yard. She was commissioned under a new name, the Hancock. She also served as a troopship in the First World War.
The ship was scrapped in 1926.