Loss of the Atlantic (I), The

DESCRIPTION: "The loss of the Atlantic upon the ocean wave Where fully seven hundred souls met with a watery grave." Bound for New York, the captain "changed his course for Halifax which proved our overthrow.... she ran upon a rock"
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1960 (Peacock)
KEYWORDS: death drowning wreck storm
HISTORICAL REFERENCES:
Mar 31/Apr 1, 1873 - wreck of the Atlantic
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Peacock, pp. 931-932, "The Loss of the Atlantic" (1 text, 1 tune)
Roud #3822
RECORDINGS:
Joshua Osborne, "The Loss of the Atlantic" (on PeacockCDROM) [one verse only]
CROSS-REFERENCES:
cf. "The Loss of the Atlantic" (II)
cf. "The Loss of the Atlantic" (III)
cf. "The Loss of the Atlantic" (IV)
cf. "Never Go Back on the Poor"
NOTES: "The Atlantic was a famous four-masted iron vessel of the White Star fleet wrecked off the coast of Nova Scotia on March 31 and April 1 of 1873....[T]he records show a loss of 535" (Peacock). The Northern Shipwrecks database says the passengers were immigrants and 981 people were on board. - BS
Paine, p. 43, notes that the Atlantic was still quite new at the time of her disaster (completed 1871). Ritchie, p. 15, says that she had four masts and four 150 horsepower engines, giving her a speed of 12 knots. She was originally intended to sail to Chile, but the new White Star Line abandoned the idea quickly, and she never sailed that route. The fatal voyage was only her nineteenth.
The Atlantic, according to Brinnin, p. 249, sailed from Liverpool to New York (via Queenstown) on March 20, 1873. He reports 942 people aboard (as we shall see, this figure is subject to question) and enough coal to last 15 days. Fox, p. 246, notes however that there was a coal strike at the time, so she ended up being given less than her usual coal supply (927 tons, compared to 1155 tons on earlier voyages) -- plus the coal was a mix of Welsh and Lancaster coal. She usually used Welsh coal; the Lancaster type was faster-burning and less useful for powering boilers.
She also reportedly had a "disorderly and infamous" crew and many officers who were not attentive to their tasks (Brinnin, p. 250).
There seems to be some dispute about the captain's name. Ritchie, p. 15, says he was James A. Williams, and that the fatal voyage was his second with the Atlantic. Paine calls him John A. Williams. Brinnin's index lists him as James Agnew Williams. This is also the name used on p. 246 of Fox -- who adds that he had previously been dropped from another shipping company for drinking, but was hired by White Star because they were growing fast and needed experienced captains.
Whatever his Christian name, circumstances beyond his control caused much trouble. There was a gale in the mid-Atlantic which slowed her dramatically. After 11 days of storms, she was an estimated 400 miles from New York. The distance to Halifax was less than half that. And the supply of coal was short. Fox, p. 247, thinks the inexperienced chief engineer had run the engines inefficiently, and also doubts his estimate of the amount of coal remaining. But the Captain had to accept the data supplied by the engineers.
Captain Williams at first tried to save the situation by reducing speed and ordering other measures to conserve coal (Fox, p. 247). If he had slowed the ship during the storm, it might have worked, but it was now too late; the ship simply wasn't making enough progress. Williams was forced to make a decision.
Paine reports that Captain Williams's decision to make for Halifax conformed to company regulations, and Fox, p. 247, says that both his chief officer and chief engineer agreed with him: The ship had burned too much coal to continue her run (Ritchie says she was down to 127 tones, and would need at least 130 to finish her voyage; Fox, p. 247, also reports the 127 ton figure). Plus the barometer was falling. So she headed for Halifax.
To this point, everything Williams had done was defensible. But what he did next was an undeniable mistake. They were close to Halifax, so -- presumably in an attempt to save as much time as possible and avoid penalties for a delayed arrival -- the Atlantic lit all her boilers and headed for Halifax at full speed (Fox, p. 248). The goal was to get there, coal up, and hurry to New York in time to make her scheduled return trip to Britain.
Apparently the skies were still cloudy when Williams made his decision and set his course. Williams operated on dead reckoning, based on the compass and logged speeds. Later that evening, the clouds broke up, but he apparently did not recheck his bearings from the stars (which are of course more reliable, since wind and waves do not affect the speed). He could have checked his results by taking soundings -- but this would have slowed the ship, and he did not order it done (Fox, p. 248).
Ritchie thinks that, in the bad weather, Captain Williams misidentified a lighthouse and as a result misdirected the ship. Whatever the explanation, the course was wrong by several degrees. And, having set a course, Williams took a nap. It was only supposed to last three hours (Fox, p. 248), but that was long enough.
It is unfortunate to note that a quartermaster at the helm had questioned the landmarks, but was ordered by the second officer to stay on course. The officer refused even to awaken the captain (Fox, p. 248).
Because of the navigation error, the Atlantic, instead of reaching Halifax, hit the coast some 20 miles from that port.
The ship went aground around 3:00 a.m. near Marr's Island (Meagher's Head, on Point Prospect) east of Halifax. Her bow apparently was caught in a vice, so the bow was held in place while the stern was being battered by the waves (Fox, p. 248). She quickly began to settle. What happened next is debated; some claim that the real disaster came when one of her boilers blew up, causing her to roll over, casting many into the sea, and sink unusually quickly (Ritchie, p. 15). Because her nose was trapped, she sank by the stern, and quickly twisted over on her side (Fox, p. 249). This meant that even the parts still above water were exposed to wind and waves, making it almost impossible to operate the machinery on deck and exposing the people on board to the full violence of the very cold weather. Many people, especially on the starboard side, were trapped below the decks.
The waves swept away the port side lifeboats, and wrecked most of those on the starboard side. Only one made it into the water (Fox, p. 249). Some took shelter in the rigging, but this was hardly better than down below because of the wet and cold.
There was a rock some forty yards away. After an unsuccessful try, a sailor managed to carry a rope to it (Fox, pp. 249-250). Men slowly crawled along the lifeline, with many lost in the attempt. The rock was small, and could hold only a few hundred. Others went on to Marr's Island, but this too went slowly. As the tide fell, the Atlantic snapped in two (Fox, p. 250); perhaps there were more boiler explosions (so Ritchie, p. 16).
Eventually local boats began to come out, but many locals were afraid to sail. It was some ten hours before rescue operations concluded (Fox, p. 250).
About 250 people were saved -- all male and all but one an adult. (The one youngster was a twelve-year-old named John Hindley, who was one of the last people rescued.) The death of every woman and almost all the children aboard apparently became a source of controversy (understandably), but it does not seem to have been a matter of deliberate exclusion; men,being stronger, had a better chance of making it across the lifeline to the island (Fox, p. 250), and being larger, would also survive better in the cold.
The losses are somewhat uncertain, because the purser and his records were lost, so we don't know how many people were aboard (Fox, p. 250). Paine lists as the extremes 454 lost out of 981 aboard to 560 of 931 aboard; Brinnin's figure is that 481 died. Ritchie, p. 15, also says that 481 died out of 931. Fox, p. 250, cites the high figure of 585. Preston, p. 56, says that over 500 were lost in this first great tragedy of the steam liner trade.
Preston quotes a contemporary account: "A large mass of something drifted past the ship on the top of the waves, and then it was lost to view in the trough of the sea. As it passed by a moan -- it must have been a shriek but the tempest dulled the sound -- seemed to surge up from the mass, which extended over fifty yards of water: it was the women. The sea swept them out of the steerage, and with their children, to the number of 200 or 300, they drifted thus into eternity."
Captain Williams -- who had been asleep at the time of the wreck; he had given orders to be awakened, but the orders were not obeyed (Brinnin, p. 251) -- was found guilty of negligence, but his license was suspended for only two years based on his gallant conduct during the rescue operations (Brinnin, p. 253).
Williams was certainly guilty of a navigation error, but Fox would distribute the blame more widely; he blames the chief engineer for mismanaging the engines -- and White Star for being too cheap to supply either enough good coal or an abundance of cheap coal.
Incidentally, the Atlantic of 1873 should not be confused with another Atlantic, the Collins Line steamer launched in 1849. This ship had a major mechanical breakdown in 1851, and was for a time thought to have vanished, but made it home under sail after much delay (Brinnin, pp. 182-184). The second Atlantic was not exactly a replacement for the first, but the decommissioning of the earlier ship after the American Civil War made the name "available" for the new liner.
There was also a paddleboat named Atlantic which collided with the Ogdensburg on Lake Erie in 1852, and sank with the loss of some 250 lives (she was crowded with immigrants, and no one knows exactly how many died; for background, see Bourrie, pp. 77-83).
Despite this tragedy, the period after the sinking of the Atlantic was the glory time for the transatlantic steamers, and it was also a relatively safe period. There would not be another disaster for almost forty years, when a certain ship called the Titanic set out on her maiden run. She too, we note, was a White Star liner. - RBW
For two different 1873 broadsides on the same subject see:
Bodleian, Harding B 13(234), "Verses on the Wreck of the Atlantic" ("Oh, pray give attention and listen to me "), unknown, 1873 [text refers to the wreck as having occurred after "the steamer Atlantic ... left Liverpool upon the 20th ult"].
Bodleian, Firth c.26(289), "Lines on the loss of the 'Atlantic'" ("Oh! listen you wives and mothers"), unknown, 1873 [text refers to a "List of the passengers, from the Manchester Courier, April 4th, 1873"] - BS
Note that Roud lumps all the Atlantic songs, but their form shows that they are distinct. - RBW
Bibliography Last updated in version 2.6
File: Pea931

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