Burning Of The City of Montreal
By James Donahue
It was on October 10, 1887 that the Inman Line Steamship City of Montreal, carrying 234 passengers
and crew members, her holds packed with general cargo, caught fire and burned in the North Atlantic. It was a potential disaster
in the making, but miraculously not a single life was lost.
The story of how those people escaped is a classic record of good seamanship, fair weather and extremely
good fortune in having help arrive in the form of passing ships that saw the fire and rushed to the scene.
The City of Montreal was a 15-year-old 419-foot-long steel-hull vessel making its way on a routine
trip from New York City to Queenstown and Liverpool, England. Her manifest showed 135 passengers and 99 crew members. The
cargo included 2,031 bales of cotton, 5,011 boxes of cheese, 1,906 boxes of bacon, 5,658 bags of copper matte, and a variety
of other items, mostly flour, tobacco, barrels of meat, lard and oil.
The ship’s master, Captain F. S. Land, was obviously an experienced and capable seaman who maintained
a well-trained and disciplined crew. When fire was discovered among the bales of cotton in the holds amidships, he ordered
the crew into the bowels of the ship to fight the flames.
The fire was discovered at about 10 p.m., after most of the passengers were in bed and many of them
already asleep. The Rev. J. M. Donaldson, an Australian who was among the passengers, said the passengers were aroused and
dressed in smoke-filled rooms before huddling together on the deck while fire-fighting efforts continued.
After a while it appeared that the fire was under control, although many bales of the cotton were
still smoldering. Captain Land ordered the ship’s course changed and the hold sealed. It was thought that if the fire
could be kept contained the steamer might make it to St. John’s, Newfoundland, the nearest port about 400 miles away.
Donaldson said the smoldering fire proved delusive, however. "Though checked in the after hatch, it
burst out in another hatch midway in the ship, and from the force and violence of the combustion it soon became evident that
all hopes of saving the vessel were at an end."
There were eight lifeboats on the ship, all of them large enough to carry the entire complement of
passengers and crew. Land obviously knew that there was a good possibility that he would have to order everybody into those
boats, so he had workers busy getting them prepared with food, water and other provisions in case they were forced to spend
a long time on the open sea. When the fire broke out the second time, and he was obvious that the steamer was going to burn,
the order was given to abandon ship.
Even though the seas were high, the boats with the passengers were successfully lowered. There were
some hitches, however. Because ship’s officers and crew members remained on the job fighting the fire until all of the
passengers were safely away, the officers assigned to command specific lifeboats were unable to get to their boats. Also a
contingent of 13 men managed to get away in one of the lifeboats, create a sail by hanging canvas over the oars, and sail
away from the fire scene. Land said they had foolishly disobeyed orders to remain with the other boats near the burning steamer
in case the light of the fire attracted passing ships.
Land left the City of Montreal after he felt sure that all of the passengers and crew members were
safely away in the boats. But afterwards it was discovered that 19 people, who had gathered aft and were obscured by the smoke,
were left behind. Two of the lifeboats, which were already packed with survivors, returned to the burning steamer and took
about 12 people off the burning ship. It was then that the German barque Trabant, under command of Captain H. Scheel, came
on the scene and safely removed the remaining passengers.
The Trabant remained on the scene and took all of the other survivors aboard the barque, although
this vessel, bound from Charleston to London with a cargo of turpentine, was not equipped to provide for such a crowd. It
stood by until the freighter York City, Captain E. W. Benn, spotted the fire and came on the scene.
The York City, also bound for Queenstown, also lacked passenger accommodations but this ship was larger
and Captain Benn went out of his way to improvise to provide shelter and food. Land said "sails were unbent for beds and tents
erected on sheltered parts of the deck to afford protection from the cold wind for those who could not be better provided
for." Fortunately the York City’s cargo included meat in tins that were opened to keep passengers fed until the ship
The German schooner Mathilde, Captain Boltzen, rescued the 13 men on the missing lifeboat after they
had spent four days at sea in the open lifeboat. Ironically after struggling for days against the sea, they saw a ship in
the distance and pulled for it. They found themselves back at the burned-out hulk of the City of Montreal which was still
adrift and still burning. It was here that the Mathilde found them.
Silver medals were awarded all three captains for their combined efforts to rescue the survivors of
the City of Montreal. The awards were made by the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society.
The origin of the fire was never determined. One report noted that the City of Montreal was the seventy-third
ship with cargos of raw American cotton to catch fire during a five-month period.
The steamer was launched in Glasgow in 1872.