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S.S. Atlantic

by Luke Milner about a year ago in vintage

A disaster largely forgotten

The steamship Atlantic (1871) was built for the White Star Line, as part of a class of sisters. She was the second one after the Oceanic (1870). Following Oceanic and Atlantic were the Baltic (1871) and the Republic (1871). Following these would be the Adriatic (1871) and the Celtic (1872). These ships were built between 1870 and 1872, by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, which had been specified by a contract between Gustav Schwabe and Thomas Ismay that finance would be provided for the White Star Line on the condition it have its ships built by Harland and Wolff.

Atlantic and her sisters were very revolutionary in their design, they were seen as cutting edge by many people of the time and the beginning of modern ship designs. Many ships before had paddle structures with large wheels on their sides, Atlantic and her sisters had a single propeller powered by a pair of two-cylinder compound steam engines. Despite these, they were still fitted with sailing masts, four to each vessel. They were also built with a length to width ratio of 10:1 which was larger than the 6:1 ratio seen on previous ships, meaning Atlantic and her sisters could carry more passengers and not increase water resistance on her hull. Atlantic was 421.3 ft long and 40.7 ft wide and her sisters were of similar size, if the Great Eastern (1858) laid up on the mersey river is not to be included, Atlantic and her sisters were the largest, fastest and most luxurious ocean liners ever built at the time. During the course of these sisters’ careers, the Adriatic and the Baltic managed to capture the Blue Riband for White Star, which was the award for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. These innovations did not end here, Atlantic and her sisters were the first ships ever to incorporate electricity onboard, though it was only for the upper class or “Saloon” class passengers. Their staterooms were fitted with electric bells to summon a steward or stewardess, with one or two rings. Thomas Ismay was also aware of the profitability of carrying larger numbers of immigrants across the oceans, and as such consideration was given for the comfort of the lower class passengers as well, which was not seen on other ships. The Atlantic’s steerage passengers were given extra lighting and proper toilet facilities, as well as privacy areas for families. Atlantic had two classes of accommodation, as can be seen above, the upper class passengers were stationed in the ship’s deckhouse, and the deck below. Whereas the steerage passengers were split into two groups, single women and families in the stern, while single men were stationed in the bow.

Atlantic was also crewed by many experienced seamen, her captain James Agnew Williams had been with White Star Line since 1871 and had begun as second officer on the Atlantic’s sister ship Republic. John Firth was the ship’s Chief/First Officer, who had been a captain with ships in the Mediterranean, but stepped down to command ships like Atlantic. Henry Metcalf, the ship’s Second Officer had an arrogant personality, and as such had led a rocky career. He was in command of a ship called the SS Explorer when it crashed into and sank the SS Bretagne. His certification had been suspended and at the time of Atlantic, it had only just been reinstated. Third and Fourth Officers Cornelius Brady and John Brown were also well experienced officers.

On March 20th 1873, Atlantic cast off from Liverpool England on her nineteenth crossing, stopping briefly in Queenstown, Ireland to pick up more passengers. Upon departing from Queenstown on March 21st, she had approximately 935 people onboard. Albert Sumner was one of Atlantic’s passengers, a church organist. Charles Allen was a corset manufacturer and was travelling back to the United States. Lauriston and Lillian Davidson were a mother-daughter pair travelling to the United States to seek out Lauriston’s brother John, as many of her family had passed away. John lived and worked in a mining town called Telegraph City in Calaveras County, California. John Hindley, a twelve-year-old boy from Aston, England was travelling with his parents Mary and Patrick, and older brother Michael to join two married sisters in New Jersey.

The first few days had favourable weather and Atlantic made good progress, even impressing Williams. Each day he would ask Chief Engineer John Foxley to calculate the coal consumption, which the latter would do. However, as it was with ships in that time, Foxley would accurately calculate the consumption and subtract some, in an effort to help the crew be careful on consumption. However, on the evening of March 23rd, the weather took a turn for the worse. The ship was now sailing head on against gale-force winds, and she was reduced to gaining less than half of the speed she was usually capable of. She was also running her coal reserves even greater than usual, but was still only inching along in some cases. On March 27th, she endured the worst of the weather and was almost thrown onto her side on one occasion. On this day, lifeboat 4 was destroyed by a rogue wave which crashed over the boat deck. Food was reduced to basics to prevent seasickness, and stewards were instructed to keep an eye out for injuries among passengers and fires from smashing oil lamps. Due to the coal consumption, Williams ordered that anything that used steam was to only be used when absolutely necessary.

On March 31st, the weather had seemingly calmed down, but more bad news was coming. Foxley had calculated that there were only 129 tons of coal left in the ship, after subtracting 31 tons from the accurate 160 tons. Williams knew that the ship needed at least 130 tons to reach New York. If they did not divert for refuelling, the ship will drift dead in the water after running out of coal. After discussing the situation with Foxley and the bridge officers, Williams made the difficult decision to risk his and the White Star Line’s reputation, by diverting into Halifax, Nova Scotia for refuelling and restocking on food and other supplies.

That evening he ordered his officers, including Metcalf and Brown to alert him at 3am, when they should have seen the Sambro Island Lighthouse, the main guidance signal for entering Halifax harbour. He also left orders with his steward to wake him at 2:40am, but did not inform Metcalf of this. Further problems presented themselves due to the fact that none of the ranking officers on the Atlantic had been to Halifax before, apart from quartermaster Robert Thomas who was at the ship’s wheel at this time. Unbeknownst to the crew, the ocean’s current had pushed the ship twelve miles further west from where they should have been in order to safely enter Halifax harbour. Thomas attempted to warn Metcalf of the dangers but Metcalf ignores this, believing that if the Sambro Lighthouse had not been seen, they were still a safe distance from the shore. Metcalf stopped the steward from waking the captain, as he was not aware of Williams' orders to the latter, and allowed the captain to sleep longer.

Disaster struck soon after, at 3:14am the lookouts spotted waves breaking on a seemingly deserted island. Metcalf realised his mistake far too late, he found himself in a situation almost identical to that of William Murdoch on the Titanic 39 years later. He frantically ordered hard-a’starboard, which meant steer all the way to port and slammed the ship’s engines in reverse. But the ship could not turn quick enough, she violently tore her underbelly open on submerged rock pilings before violently at crashing at full speed into a partially submerged rock, Golden Rule Rock. The ship’s oil lamps were extinguished by the shock of the impact with the rock, plunging the ship into a permanent blackout. Everyone was thrown awake, and panic ensued within seconds. Williams harshly berated Metcalf for not waking him when he asked him to. Crew members quickly assembled on deck, while Williams ordered all hands on deck, the passengers on deck immediately and the lifeboats to be prepared. Inside the ship, passengers tried to dress themselves and collect their valuables as quickly as they could, but found this difficult due to the darkness. The steerage passengers became bottlenecked on the staircases, which were their only means of escape, but a few made it on deck.

The lifeboats were swung out, while two of the quartermasters began firing distress rockets. A handful of women and children were put into one of the first lifeboats, which was tragically thrown against the side of the stricken vessel, killing all of its occupants. A second lifeboat was prepared on the same side of the ship, which was commandeered by Metcalf. Williams however ordered everyone out of the lifeboat, fearing it was too dangerous. The crew had to use brutal force to stop panicked passengers getting into the lifeboat, the women and children were pulled out of this boat but the men refused.

On the island, a fishing family headed by Michael Clancy were woken by the rockets. Michael went out to see what was happening, where he saw the stricken vessel leaning on its port side. He quickly ran back to order his family to raise the alarm on the mainland.

Back at the Metcalf-comandeered lifeboat, the ship suddenly lurched and the davits holding this boat gave way, tipping everyone in it into the sea. Metcalf was never seen again after this. Moments later, the stern violently lost its footing on the rocks. The entire ship plunged to a very steep angle on its port side. Inside, once the ship had finished plunging, a wall of water surged in, instantly and dramatically drowning the single women and families in the steerage areas. But the steerage single men were still above ground, and luckily, John Hindley had gotten permission to sleep in this area with his brother.

On deck, the waves crashed over the deckhouses, destroying the remaining lifeboats. Williams called for everyone to seek higher ground in the masts, but many people lost their grip and fell into the sea. Those in the masts watched in horror as more people trickled onto the deck, and were washed away by the roaring sea. One upper class family made it on deck, the father handed his daughter to one of the stewards, and went back inside to help his wife on deck, but they were washed away and never seen again. The daughter would be cared for by the steward, but she would die before help arrived. John Firth lead a group of people up the ship’s mizzenmast, which dwindled to only himself, a cabin boy and an upper class female passenger. But soon enough the ship continued to settle onto its side more rapidly. William lead a larger group of people towards the bow, where a plan was made to attach a lifeline from the ship to the rock on which the ship was impaled. After an unsuccessful first attempt, quartermaster John Speakman successfully managed to tie a line between the ship and the rock. More lines were fixed to the rock and more men continued to climb down, while another line was secured from the rock to the actual shoreline.

Meanwhile fishing boats from the mainland began to sweep in and rescue survivors from the rocks, but ignored those on the ship. Williams offered them payment if they came to the rescue of those on the wrecked ship. After this, John Hindley managed to get out of the wrecked ship when the glass portholes were smashed in.

Later that morning, Reverend William Ancient was confused by the absence of the locals, as a friend usually cooked him breakfast. He found everyone at the site of the wreck, where he saw Firth and the young woman clinging to the mizzenmast, the cabin boy having fallen from the mast. Ancient then bravely led a successful rescue attempt, Firth was the last person to leave the Atlantic alive. The woman he helped held on as long as she possibly could, but succumbed to the cold before she could be helped off. Fourteen hours after the crash, the ship snapped in two and the bow section drifted towards the shoreline, before disappearing.

In the aftermath of the disaster, many insurance companies and people from the local towns and villages helped themselves to the salvaging efforts. Of the approximately 952 people onboard, at least 562 people were lost. Tragically, apart from John Hindley, every single woman and child aboard perished. Williams ordered his crew to watch over the dead as they were recovered from the wreck, but not all them could be protected. Some bodies were pickpocketed, tossed into the sea or had hair cut from them. Of the recovered bodies, many were buried in mass graves for either catholic or protestant victims in the local villages: Lower Prospect and Upper Prospect. Others were taken away and buried in other places.

The only grave relating to the Atlantic that can be found today in Halifax is that of Ambrose Worthington, the ship’s purser. He was buried in Camp Hill Cemetery in downtown Halifax. Metcalf’s body was rumoured to be buried nearby, but the stone is gone. Lauriston and Lillian Davidson both died, they never made it out of their stateroom after the ship crashed and partially capsized, they suffocated as the water rose in their stateroom. Their bodies were recovered from the wreck and buried, according to most sources, also in Camp Hill Cemetery and their grave was photographed. However, the location of their grave has vanished into history, there are no records of them being buried there. Furthermore, Telegraph City California, their intended destination, is dead ghost town now, a rusty iron windmill, some stone walls and the foundations of only a few buildings are all that's left of Telegraph City. The fact that no one knows where their remains are and that their destination has practically vanished from the world map, epitomise how forgotten the SS Atlantic is. Furthermore, there would be few descendants due to the loss of every single woman onboard, John Hindley supposedly became an alcoholic and never married, due to the trauma of losing his entire family in the disaster. This would lead him to never having children and as such, the legacy of SS Atlantic would not live on. The loss of all but one of the women and children would’ve haunted the survivors for the rest of their lives.

The wreck of the Atlantic is largely forgotten, even among those native to Nova Scotia. Despite how much in common she has with the Titanic, she is now just another seemingly forgotten wreck lying underneath the waves of her namesake. White Star Line would lose two more ships between the Atlantic and the Titanic. They were the Naronic in 1893 and the Republic in 1909, but these losses were not as deadly. Atlantic would remain the deadliest single shipwreck ever recorded until the wreck of the SS La Bourgogne in 1898, and the White Star Line’s worst loss until the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.


Cochkanoff, G and Chaulk, B. 2009. SS Atlantic: The White Star Line's First Disaster at Sea. Goose Lane Editions.

Milsom, C.H. 1975. The Coal Was There For Burning. Imprint Unknown.


jbd210947. (2014). Shipwreck Stories: The SS Atlantic. [Online Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ocz-HkPKFKA

Part-time Explorer. (2020). The Wreck of the SS ATLANTIC - Halifax, NS 1873. [Online Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6JkwN7kw8E

Titanic: Honor and Glory. (2018). SS ATLANTIC SINKS - REAL TIME DOCUMENTARY. [Online Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20a4XnplkIU

Titanic: Honor and Glory. (2018). SS Atlantic - The Mystery of the Davidsons' Grave. [Online Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26ibKdATrxA

Luke Milner
Luke Milner
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