GRAND BANKS — (WHTM) On this day, 110 years ago, the Titanic slipped beneath the waves, taking with her over 1500 passengers and crew members.
Since then, the Titanic sinking has been the benchmark against which all other maritime disasters have been measured. There have been sinkings that have resulted in greater loss of life, yet somehow none of them have replaced the doomed White Star Liner in the public imagination. But have you ever wondered what people compared the Titanic sinking to in 1912?
In September of 1854, the S.S. Arctic was sailing along the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, on her way to her homeport of New York. Launched in 1850 by the New York and Liverpool Mail Steamship Company (more commonly known as the Collins Line), the wooden-hulled, steam-powered vessel was America’s largest ocean liner at 2856 tons, with a length of 284 feet (87 m) and a beam of 45 feet (14m). She was also the most luxurious. Contemporary accounts gushed at the magnificence of her furnishing and fittings. She was also fast, routinely making the New York-Liverpool crossing in ten days.
On September 27, at about 12:15 p.m., while traveling in fog, the Arctic collided with the S.S. Vesta, a smaller ship that sustained severe damage. At first James F. Luce, the captain of the Arctic, stood by to lend aid, thinking the Vesta was going to sink and sent a boat over to help.
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Then Luce realized his own ship was going down. The collision opened up a hole under the waterline, and nothing was going to stop the water, because the Arctic had no watertight bulkheads. The magnificent liner was a great big open boat. The only ways to get rid of the water were the steam pumps and the water intake for the steam engines. The only way for them to work was to keep the fires going in the boilers and keep the paddle wheels moving. Luce was forced to abandon the Vesta to her fate and make a run for shore, hoping to either make port or ground the ship in shallow water.
It was no use. Around 1:30 p.m. the water poured into the boilers, the fires went out, and the Arctic came to a stop with no land in sight.
It was time to abandon ship. But the Arctic carried only six lifeboats, the minimum required by law, but barely half of what was needed for all the passengers and crew. Worse still, the launch of the lifeboats turned into a major debacle. All order disintegrated; panicking male passengers and crewmen stormed the boats, and very few women and children got in.
The rest of the passengers and crew were left to face their fate. Some makeshift rafts were assembled, but when the Arctic sank stern first at around 4:45 p.m. about 250 people were still on board. They included Captain Luce, who went down with the ship. Ironically, he survived, coming to the surface, along with his son. Then one of the enormous paddlewheel boxes broke loose from the wreck, and shot to the surface, crashing down and killing Luce’s son. Luce and several others would float on the wheel box for two days before being rescued by a passing ship.
Of the six lifeboats, three were never heard from again. One was rescued by the same ship that rescued Captain Luce, which also picked up a few survivors on rafts. Two of the lifeboats actually made it to shore. Their occupants were taken to St. Johns, Newfoundland.
There in the harbor was the Vesta. Unlike the Arctic, the iron-hulled Vesta had watertight bulkheads. Even though she was severely damaged, the ship didn’t flood, and the captain and crew were able to slowly get her to safety.
Because there were no telegraph connections between St. John’s and the United States, it took days for news of the disaster to reach New York. The city essentially went into mourning. The grief intensified when the numbers came in, and people learned that, of the (roughly) 250 passengers and 150 crew, there were only 85 survivors. Grief turned to rage when it was learned that 61 of the survivors were crew, 24 were male passengers, and not a single woman or child survived.
The sinking sparked some improvements in maritime safety-but not many. Watertight bulkheads became more popular with shipbuilders. (The Collins Line retrofitted their other liners.) Steamships started carrying and using steam whistles for signaling. Improved signal lights were required, including red and green sidelights. One of the biggest improvements was a chart, produced by America’s premiere chart maker and “Father of Oceanography”, Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Murray. It proposed two parallel sea lanes, three hundred miles wide, across the Atlantic. The westbound ship would take the northern lane, eastbound ships would take the southern. This plan was widely adopted by shipping companies.
But the most important safety measure, carrying enough lifeboats for all aboard, would not be mandated until after the Titanic went down.
The wreck of the Arctic has never been found.
Captain James F. Luce never took to the sea again.
Women and Children Last-The Loss of the Steamship Arctic, by Alexander Crosby Brown, © 1961