The Arctic Disaster Of 1854
By James Donahue
It was September 27, 1854 and the four-year-old Collins Line steamship Arctic was on the last leg
of a voyage from Liverpool to New York when it ran into fog and collided with the French steamship Vesta off the Newfoundland
coast. An estimated 400 passengers and crew members perished when the steamer foundered.
Both the Arctic and Vista remained afloat for a while as the masters assessed their situation. When
Captain James Luce realized the Arctic was quickly taking on water he abandoned the Vesta and steamed the ship toward the
nearest coast in an attempt to save the 534 passengers and crew members.
The Vesta’s bow was crushed and everyone thought it also would sink. But it was reinforced with
a steel bulkhead that was not breached. The steamer made it safely to a Canadian port.
The Arctic failed to make it to shore. The big steamer drifted to a stop when the engine room flooded.
When it was clear that the ship was sinking Luce gave the order to abandon ship. There was a problem, however. The vessel
carried only six lifeboats, only enough for about 180 people. Crew members and some of the male passengers knew this and made
a dash for the boats. They launched the boats only partly filled, thus hundreds of passengers, and all of the women and children,
were left behind to perish.
Captain Luce went down with the ship, but miraculously survived. He was standing on top of one of
the paddle wheel boxes when the vessel sank. The structure broke loose as the wooden vessel went down and he was still alive,
clinging to it when he was rescued by a passing ship two days later.
The steel hulled Vesta survived the crash and safely arrived in a Canadian port.
Luce was hailed as a hero when the story of what happened spread along the coast. But the crew members
who escaped in the lifeboats were disgraced. Many of them remained in Canada, never to return home.
Public outrage over the incident led to the now familiar tradition of saving women and children first
in the event of maritime disasters.
The Arctic was launched at New York in 1850.