Bleeding Out Behind a Veil: SS Arctic

The Collins Line was, back in the 1850s, one of the most well-known and popular passenger shipping lines. Their fleet of paddle-wheeled steamers ferried travellers between the old and new worlds. Today, next to nobody even knows that they existed. 

Even fewer people know of the tragedy of the SS Arctic, which accelerated the line's financial issues and eventual closure in 1958. Just 80km off the coast of Newfoundland, the rotting hulk of the once-elegant steamer sits crumpled on the sea floor, never visited, never remembered. 

The single-funnelled, 284-foot Arctic was the most celebrated and largest of the four Collins Line vessels ever in service, earning the nickname "Clipper of the Seas" for her record-breaking 9-day winter 1851 transatlantic crossing. She was adored by passengers for her lavish interiors, as opposed to Cunard Line's Britannia, which Charles Dickens likened the latter's dining saloon to "a long narrow compartment, not unlike a gigantic hearse," while Arctic's main saloon was appreciated by many for a near-Oriental, elegant design with detailed touches. 

None of this admiration and popularity would spare the westbound paddle-wheeled, wooden-hulled steamer from a fog-shrouded collision with the eastbound SS Vesta. Ten feet of the bow of the iron-hulled Vesta was shorn clean off, but thanks to watertight compartments integrated into her design, she was spared. Arctic, wooden-hulled with no watertight compartments, received the polar opposite treatment, flooding extensively and sinking within four hours.

Arctic only had enough lifeboats for less than half of her roughly 400 passengers and crew.

Only 85 survived, including 61 crew and 24 male passengers. No women or children on board ever touched land again. Only 3 lifeboats were ever found.

The only casualties on the Vesta were the occupants of a lifeboat prematurely lowered over the side; its passengers were fearful of their ship sinking, but were met with the Arctic's jet-black prow knifing over them by accident. The sinking was allegedly rife with cowardice and a most pure demonstration of mankind's greed and selfishness when faced with calamity. Even the wife and two children of Edward Collins, owner of Collins Line, were killed. Many passengers relied on makeshift rafts to escape. Also lost, in a sick twist of irony, were several members of the Brown family, which financed the Collins Line. The captain of the Arctic, James F. Luce, went down with his ship while clinging to his son. Miraculously arriving at the surface to a sea of screaming, bewildered people, the two of them were struck by a section of one of the ship's paddlewheel boxes rising to the surface behind them. Luce survived, but his son was killed instantly when it barrelled into them.

Captain Luce then spent two days clinging to the very piece of wreckage that had killed his son.

Obviously the sinking was the "Titanic" of its time, so to speak, right down to bleeding out and foundering within the same timeframe with more or less the same lifeboat to passenger ratio. News of the disaster didn't reach New York for two weeks due to the infancy of wireless communications systems at the time. The SS Arctic has been lost in more ways than one, veiled behind a thick curtain of sand and murky seawater and lack of public knowledge which increased during the passage of time. Everything about this spectacularly horrid disaster, from the cowardice and bias to the heroism, deserves to be recognized. The crew overtaking lifeboats, makeshift rafts of screaming women and children being sucked out to sea, and the cannon at the prow of the sinking liner being fired continuously until her death rattle. It all happened. It's a major event in maritime history no matter how one looks at it.

This calamity at sea deserves to be known and recognized, as do those lost.  

Photos: Wikimedia Commons (unaltered)