One hundred and fifty-nine years ago today, on September 27, 1854, the Collins Line steamship S.S. Arctic sank off Cape Race, Newfoundland, Canada, taking almost 400 people with her to a watery grave. The Arctic disaster is an uncommonly harrowing tale of hubris and tragedy, even by the standards of mass-casualty North Atlantic tragedies, and it also has the distinction of being the first such mass disaster. Occurring in 1854, as the Atlantic passenger sweepstakes was just getting underway, the Arctic wreck was overshadowed in history by the Titanic and Lusitania sinkings of the 1910s, but it had a huge impact on the psyche of the 19th century Atlantic world, and is a story worth retelling.
The Arctic was only four years old, launched in 1850. She was a wooden paddle-wheel steamer, as all steamships were at that time, and her operators, the Collins Line, had figured out that ferrying passengers across the Atlantic quickly and in luxury was the key to big profits. This was, in fact, part of the reason for the disaster. Several days out from Liverpool, England, the Arctic was steaming too fast through the fog off Cape Race, and collided with a smaller French steamship, the Vesta, which tore three large holes in the ship’s side. Neither ship could see the other.
What happened next was appalling and tragic. The captain of the Arctic, whose wife and son were among the passengers, decided that he should steer the ship toward land, which was only 20 miles away. He’d underestimated the magnitude of the damage done to the ship, and after the Vesta left the scene the Arctic began taking on water at a greater rate. The crew of the ship was quite surly. After water flooded the engines and stopped the paddle-wheel–tantalizingly in sight of land–the crew mutinied and stole the ship’s lifeboats, leaving helpless women and children to die in the icy waters. The remaining passengers tried to build a raft to float off the sinking ship, but only two survived.
The scene in the cold waters after the Arctic went down was eerily reminiscent of what happened when the Titanic sank, ironically not that far away, 58 years later: hundreds of panicked people floundering in the waters, shouting for rescue and grasping anything that would float. Like the Titanic victims, many of them froze to death within minutes. By the standards of 1854, the very beginning of the era of mass transportation, the casualty toll was appalling.
Sadly, the world mostly forgot the Arctic disaster. There’s a monument to the dead in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, but not much else. David W. Shaw’s 2002 book The Sea Shall Embrace Them tells the story of the tragedy in greater detail.
For another article I did on an 1850s ship disaster with far-reaching consequences, click here.