The steamship SS Arctic sinks in 1854

The steamship SS Arctic sinks in 1854

The steamship SS Arctic sinks in 1854

On this day during on September 27, 1854, the steamship SS Arctic, owned by the Collins Line of New York, sinks after a collision with the French steamer Vesta a much smaller vessel, 50 miles (80 km) off the coast of Newfoundland. The SS Arctic sank after four hours later.

The SS Arctic’s lifeboat capacity was around 180. It was enough for less than half those on board. The ship was put in to sea in an atmosphere of panic and disorder, and the principle of “women and children first” was ignored.

Passenger and crew lists indicate that there were most probably 400 onboard including 250 passengers and 150 crew members. However, only 85 survived, including 24 male passengers and 61 crew members. Unfortunately, all the women and children on board could not survive. Because they ignored the principle of “women and children first”.

Map (1854) showing the position of the collision (upper right) between Arctic and Vesta, (roughly 46° 45'N, 52° 06'W) and the relative positions of land: Newfoundland, Halifax, Quebec, New York
Map (1854) showing the position of the collision (upper right) between Arctic and Vesta, (roughly 46° 45’N, 52° 06’W) and the relative positions of land: Newfoundland, Halifax, Quebec, New York

Among those lost were the wife of Edward Collins and two of his children. Other victims included several members of the Brown family, whose bank, Brown Brothers, had helped to finance the Collins Line.

Also lost was Frederick Catherwood, the English architect, and painter whose name was mysteriously left off the official casualty lists for weeks until a concerted effort by his friends and colleagues resulted in a belated inclusion by the authorities and newspapers.

In addition to the tragic loss of human life, a rare copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio that New York lawyer and Shakespeare collector Aldon W. Griswold had purchased and shipped from Liverpool, was lost.

Among the lost as well were Mahlon Day, prominent New York publisher of children’s books and business publications, with his wife and daughter.

However, no one was called to account for this shocking disaster, and no official inquiry was held. Lifeboat provision on passenger-carrying ships remained inadequate until well into the 20th century.

After the collision, Arctic’s captain, James Luce, a first attempt was to assist the stricken Vesta, which he believed was in imminent danger of sinking.

Meanwhile, the Captain discover that his own ship has seriously holed below the waterline. He decide to run the ship towards the nearest land, in the hopes of reaching safety.

However, his surviving plan was fail. The engines stopped when the ship was still a considerable distance from land.

Meanwhile, two of the six lifeboats that left the Arctic reached the Newfoundland shore safely. Another was pick up by a passing steamer, which also rescued a few survivors from improvised rafts.

Among those saved was Captain Luce, who had regained the surface after initially going down with the ship. Unfortunately, the other three lifeboats disappeared without a trace.

The limited telegraph resources of the time meant that news of the Arctic’s loss did not reach New York until two weeks after the sinking.

After this disaster Captain Luce, retired from the sea and some of the surviving crew chose not to return to the United States.

Numerous efforts were launch from St John’s in the hope of finding more survivors. By contrast, the Bishop of Newfoundland, the Right Revd Edward Feild, gave his private yacht Hawk free of charge.

Bishop Edward Feild, whose yacht Hawk helped to search for Arctic survivors
Bishop Edward Feild, whose yacht Hawk helped to search for Arctic survivors

SS Arctic

The SS Arctic was a 2,856-ton paddle steamer, one of the Collins Line, which operated a transatlantic passenger and mail steamship service during the 1850s. The ship was was the largest and most celebrated of the four Collins steamers.

She was the largest of a fleet of four, built with the aid of the United States. The government subsidies to challenge the transatlantic supremacy of the British-backed Cunard Line.

During its four-year period of service, the ship was renowne both for its speed and for the luxury of its accommodation.

However, the Collins Line continued its transatlantic service until further maritime losses and insolvency led to its closure in 1858.

The first shipping line to begin regular transatlantic steamer services were the British-backed Cunard Line, which began operating on July 4, 1840, with the departure from Liverpool of RMS Britannia, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Boston.

SS Arctic, after her launching in 1850
SS Arctic, after her launching in 1850

General characteristics

  • Tonnage : 2856 tons
  • Length : 284 feet (87 m)
  • Beam : 45 feet (14 m)
  • Draught : 19 feet (5.8 m)
  • Depth : 32 feet (9.8 m)
  • Installed power : 2,000 hp (1,500 kW)
  • Propulsion : two side-lever steam engines
  • Crew : 153
Breakfast Menu from the SS Arctic dated 1853
Breakfast Menu from the SS Arctic dated 1853