Sea History 089 - Summer 1999

Page 12

their C unard rivals. British Steamers Outpace American Sail As briefly noted in out las t, tragedy then struck one of the four American deepwatermen continued to offer good food and hard work in the fin al decades of the American merchant marine under steamers. In September 1854 th e Arctic was lost in a co llision with sail. And to a surprising extent the ships continued to be built of the French steamer Vesta off Newfo undland . Ir was a lamentable wood, though England and the European nations had turned to scene where the crew rook to the boars pell-mell as the vessel was iron and th en steel construction for their big sailing ships. Of some sinking, leaving many passe ngers behind, including women and 3,000 square riggers built in America, only 13 were built of iron children. Collins's wife and two of their four children were among or steel, among them th e bark Kaiulani, built in Bath, Maine, in those who died . 1899- rhe ship the National Maritime Historical Society was And then, in January 1856, the famous Pacific set out from founded to save, but did not succeed in saving. Liverpool and simply va nished. No trace of her was found . Collins's biographer, Dr. Edward M. Sloan, succinctly deThese ships, mostly wooden, and built mostly in M aine, were scribed the impact of the loss of the Pacific, the famed Down Easters that closed out the co ming on top of the A rctic disaster: American experience in deepwater sail. They Now, the further loss of the Pacific was too wrote their own unique chapter in the seafarEdward Knight Collins much for the Collins firm to handle; within ing story of mankind- a chapter we'll take decided to take on the two years it lost the subsidy, ceased operations, up furth er on in this tale. British on their own declared bankruptcy, sold off the remaining The rising tide of steam navigation took ground, resolving to vessels at auction, and went out of business. over the worldwide systems of trade, that make the shift from sail to The mystery of the disappearance of the had been built up by sailing ships. By the Pacific excited speculation, with the mari1850s-the glory days of the long- haul Calisteam on the rich tim e community finall y settling on the "most fornia clippers, the fastest sailing ships ever North Atlantic run. likely" hypothes is that she had struck one of built- British steamers we re pulling away from Yankee packets the prime traffic in the numerous icebergs reported by other transAtlantic trade, a relatively short-haul route, but one noto ri- vessels cross in g th e North Atlantic that January, and had vanished in th e vas t tomb of th e North Atlantic. But, as Professor Sloan will ous for rough weather. An innovative American packer owner, Edward Kni ght Co llins, report in a forthcom ing iss ue of Sea H istory, some six years ago a decided to take on the British on their own gro und, resolving to wreck was discovered close off the coast of Wales, which subsemake the shift from sail to steam on the ri ch No rth Atlantic run . quent in ves ti gation has clearly shown to be th e remains of the Starting out with sailing packets in the co tton trade from So uthern lo ng-so ught Pacific. So we may ye t learn how the great wooden ports to New York, Collins had entered one of these fast packets ship we nt down , taking the lives of all of her 186 passengers and in the hotly competitive New York-to-Liverpool run . T hat ship , crew and endin g the brilliant but tragically flawed American entry the Shakespeare, did so well that he built three more like her, in the Atlantic steam liner sweepstakes. Of co urse we cannot know how th e Collins Line might have named for English actors and playwrights. T he new "Dramatic Line" ships soon began rakin g business from eve n the fast big ships fa red had it not been for these devastating losses. We do know, however, that the new C unard liner Persia, a big iron steam er of America's famous Black Ball Line. But C ollins, res tless, always looking for new opportunities, saw whi ch made her m aiden voyage in the very month in which the that the future lay with the rapidly- improvin g steamships th at Pacific made her las t voyage, dodged the numerous flo es that were were regularly cross ing the Atlantic as the 1850s opened-espe- prevalent in the North Atlantic that January (the floes that were cially the steamships of Samuel C unard's lin e, whi ch had a lo ng presumed to have sunk the Pacific), and later went on to beat decade's wo rth of operations under its belt by then and was the reco rds set by the hitherto unchallenged Collins Line. Backed steadily gaining ground. by the enormous resources and advanced technology of the Cunard had emigrated from Canada to Britain for access to flouri shing British economy, C unard took over leadership in the British capital and cutting-edge British techn ology, the forces that No rth Atlantic run. The Cunard Line went on to establish a made Britain the leading industrial and co mm ercial natio n of the dominance that survived challenges from German, French and world. The determin ed Canadian soo n found th e backing he other European interests, lasting on through the 1900s un ti!, in needed, includin g a handso me subsidy from the British govern- the 1960s, the ocean liner faded into history, leaving cruise ships ment, which also inves ted in steamers running to Spain , the to wander the ocean wo rld , seeking out island beaches and historic Mediterranean , and ultimately the Far Eas t in the same period . ports, while jet aircraft rook over the movement of passengers and Against this formidable co mpetition, Collins typ ically set fast freight across the Atlantic. H ere, of course, the new superabout his task with ships des igned to be simply the bigges t and the power of the wo rld, the United States, took over with a roar, and best-elega nt, even luxurious and above all, fas t. Larger than even the passage that had at first taken three months to make, which the the California clippers, th ese were fine-lin ed wooden vessels with sailing packers of the Black Ball Lin e cut down to four weeks and thumping great single-cylinder engines capabl e of driving them the Collins Line steam ers to ten days, becam e a matter of hours. across the sto rm y ocean in record tim es . And in 1851 hi s 2,845But the cities on each side of the ocean had grown up on the ton wooden stea mer Pacific set a lo ng-so ught record, crossing the slow, inelu ctable progress of the sailing ships, as had the essential Atlantic in und erten days. By the end ofl 851 fournearly identical exchanges of goods and people and ideas which nourished trade Collins ships we re m aking this run, co nsistentl y o utperforming between the distant shores.