News from 1881 Maiden Voyage of Coptic

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Mark Baber

[MAB Note: On 16 November 1881 Coptic left Liverpool on her maiden voyage for New York. By the time this article appeared, she was already about four days overdue, based on the ten day maiden voyage of her sister, Arabic I, earlier in the year.]

The New-York Times, 30 November 1881

The new White Star steam-ship Coptic, which is soon to arrive at this
port, was built at the yard of Harland & Wolff, Belfast, Ireland, from
which all of the White Star vessels were launched. The Coptic is not
quite so large as the Germanic, but is very much like that steam-ship in
appearance. Her gross register is 4,368 tons and her dimensions are:
Length, 430 feet; breadth of beam, 42 feet, and depth, 24 feet. She is
built of the very best quality of milled steel and her hull is very long
and graceful. At the forward and after end are turtle-back decks. She
carries four iron masts, the first three of which are square rigged,
while the fourth or “jigger mast” is fore-and-aft rigged. She has two
double cylinder engines of 450-horse power, which were constructed by
Jack & Co., of the Victoria Engine Works, in Liverpool. The steam is
supplied by three elliptical boilers, which work at a nominal pressure
of 90 pounds to the square inch, but which are capable of much greater
power. The crank shafts are of steel, and the engines are so
constructed so that if one breaks downs the other can still be worked.
The saloon is located amidships, immediately forward of the engines, and
is handsomely paneled with walnut and maple. The upholstery is of a
rich olive green velvet. Each of the saloon tables is provided with
cane-bottomed revolving chairs. A very handsome companionway leads from
the dining saloon to the deck above. The ladies’ cabin is handsomely
furnished, and the smoking-room is tastefully fitted up. All the
state-rooms are well ventilated and furnished, and contain every
facility for comfort. In the between-decks are compartments for a large
number of emigrants. The steerage berths are of canvas, and are so
arranged that when not in use they can be compactly stowed, thus
affording the emigrants much more room than is usual for tables and
seats. There are two hospitals in the steerage and two more on deck,
where infectious cases may be sent by the surgeon. The whole upper deck
affords a splendid promenade for saloon passengers. Along this deck are
secured eight life-boats, which can be lowered at a moment’s notice.
The emigrants’ promenade is the lower deck, which is well sheltered. In
order to decrease the danger which might arise in a collision, the hold
has been divided into eight water-tight compartments, either [sic] one
of which might become filled with water without preventing the vessel
from keeping on her course at almost the usual rate of speed. The ship
is illuminated by the Swan system of electric lights. These lights are
very bright and soft and do not flicker. Sir William Thomson’s patent
compasses are used. The Coptic is steered by steam and is provided with
all the recently discovered steam appliances. In addition to the
life-boats are two large life-rafts, which are stowed on the deck-houses
forward. The steam pumps are very powerful and capable of pumping out
water at a very rapid rate. By the same means a fire could be
extinguished before it could get under headway in any portion of the
ship. The water-tight bulkheads are of the new pattern which is now
used in the vessels of the British Navy. The Captain’s rooms are just
aft of the pilot-house and very close to the bridge. The quarters of
the officers are in a deck-house forward. The forecastle is under the
forward turtle-back deck. During her initial trip from Belfast to
Liverpool the Coptic behave extremely well and the engines showed great
capacity for speed. The new vessel is commanded by Capt. H. Parsell, a
master of long experience.


Mark Baber

On 2 December 1881, Coptic arrived in New York at the end of her prolonged maiden voyage. This story appeared the following day.

The New-York Times, 3 December 1881

Yesterday several overdue steam-ships arrived from Europe, and reported
having passed through the most tempestuous storms of the season. The
new steamer Coptic, of the White Star Line, which was described in THE
TIMES of Wednesday last, had an unfortunate experience. She sailed from
Liverpool on the 16th ult., and soon after getting out into the Atlantic
met with heavy gales. The wind blew from westward and came with great
violence. This storm had barely died out when another of equal severity
set in. On the 23d the wind blew with the force of a hurricane, and,
shifting from point to point, caused the sea to rise to a great height.
Waves swept over the decks fore and aft as she steamed along through the
storm. An enormous sea rolled up and broke over the stern, and when the
water had rolled away it was discovered that the turtleback deck had
been smashed in. One violent gust lifted a life-boat out of its chocks,
and, snapping the tackles like cords, carried it into the sea. The lost
boat soon drifted out of sight. It was almost impossible for the
sailors to move along the lower decks, which were frequently boarded by
tremendous seas. John Roberts, of Liverpool, a seaman, was seen walking
along the alley-way forward of the engines early in the afternoon. A
heavy sea then swept over the vessel, and when the water had passed away
the man was missing. A search was made for him, as it was hoped that he
had gone to some other portion of the vessel. The search was hardly
completed when a sea washed over the decks, and Nicholas Ponetti, of
Malta, another seaman, who had been seen in the alley-way aft, was
missing. A thorough search was made for the two men, but nothing could
be seen of them. These men had undoubtedly been swept overboard and
lost. The storm continued for several days, and seas swept over the
ship fore and aft, while she rolled heavily from side to side. At times
she was able to make but little more than steerage way against the
storm. These gales continued until the Coptic had nearly reached Sandy
Hook. Her officers say she stood the test well. Few of them had ever
known worse weather. Her machinery acted extremely well, and in most
respects the first voyage of the Coptic proved a satisfactory one.

[The balance of this article described the storm-wrought passages of
Guion's Arizona, whose Chief Officer suffered a broken leg; the French
Line's St. Germain, which put into Halifax for replenishment of her
depleted coal supply; and North German Lloyd's Rein, on which a
passenger died of a skull fracture.]


Alex McLean

Where do you get these from exactly, Mark? It is a great collection.

Mark Baber


I'm fortunate in that I live very close to New York, in an area where a number of libraries have the complete run of The New York Times on microfilm. When I come across a reference in a secondary source to an event that interests me, I stop at one of those libraries (usually St. Peter's College in Jersey City, New Jersey), track down whatever articles there are and photocopy them, and then transcribe and post them.

Some of these articles are from The Times of London or from other, now-defunct, New York papers; those I get from the New York Public Library, which is about a 35 minute trip from my office.
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