White Star Line SS Atlantic sank with great loss of life

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Dec 12, 1999
This White Star Line ship left Liverpool on March 20, 1873, with 952 persons on board (141 crew, 811 passengers, of which 776 were steerage). A captain unfamiliar with the dangers presented, poor weather and excessive speed led to its hitting a reef off Nova Scotia on April 1, 1873, breaking in two, and to the deaths of 562 passengers. One child was saved, no women survived. As in Titanic, victims (a total of 277) were buried ashore in Nova Scotia. This disaster was the worst ever until Titanic, some 39 years later. Does anyone know if the matter of S.S. Atlantic's sinking was raised to any degree in the Senate and Board of Trade inquires in 1912? It seems that White Star Line should have been excoriated for having suffered the two worst maritime disasters - both of which were in my view clearly the result of the ship captain's criminal negligence.

Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
Atlantic was a single screw, 4 masted 3707 ton ship, capable of 14.5 knots.
She was on of 4 virtually identical ships built for White Star by Harland &
Wolff in 1870-71; the others were Oceanic, Pacific/Baltic and Republic. She
had accommodations for 166 1st class, 1,000 third class and 166 crew.

Launched 12/1/1870, she made her maiden voyage, Liverpool-Queenstown-NY in
January 1871. On 3/20/73, she left Liverpool on her 19th voyage, under the
command of Capt. J.H. Williams. A total of 28 1st class, 761 3d/steerage and
142 crew were aboard. Because of extremely stormy weather, there was only
127 tons of coal left by 3/31, and Atlantic was still 460 miles from Sandy
Hook, the entrance to NY harbor. Halifax was closer (170 miles), so Capt.
Williams decided to head there. Off course and unable to find Sambro
Lighthouse, she ran aground at full speed (12 knots) on Marr's Rock,
Meaghers Island at 3 am on 4/1. The hull ruptured, lifeboats were shattered
or carried off by the storm and hundreds of people were simply swept out to
sea as the ship listed to starboard, crushing at least one fully loaded

Meanwhile, lines were taken to the rocks by third officer Cornelius Brady
and Quartermasters Owens an Speakman; some 250 people were saved by
following these lines to the rocks and then to shore, but others were washed
away. At the captain's orders, other passengers climbed the rigging; many
fell, cold and exhausted, while others were carried away by waves.

At 5 am, with the tide ebbing, the hull broke near the mainmast and the
stern sank. One survivor who was clinging to the rigging described seeing a
"large mass" drift past the ship when the hull cracked. "A moan---it must
have been a shriek, but the tempest dulled the sound---seemed to surge up
from the mass, which extended over fifty yards of water; it was the women.
The sea swept them out of the steerage, and with their children, to the
number of 200 or 300, they drifted thus to eternity." Only one child
survived, and no women survived.

Rescue boats from shore began arriving at 6:30 am and removed those still on
board, as well as those on the rocks. A total of 585 died.

An inquiry convened at Halifax decided that the ship had insufficient amount
of coal on board and had been negligently navigated in unfamiliar waters.
Williams' master's certificate was suspended for 2 years. Thomas Ismay,
very upset at the Canadian Inquiry's finding that the ship was not
adequately coaled, pressed for a second inquiry to be held in England. A
subsequent British inquiry was convened at White Star's request and came to the same
conclusion. Ismay continued to press the Board of Trade for a contrary finding and eventually the Board's Chief Surveyor and its London Surveyor concluded that the coal supply was, in fact, adequate and that the ship's loss was due to her being "run at full speed ... upon well known rocks, in fine weather."

Sources: Haws' Merchant Fleets: White Star Line; Bonsor's North Atlantic
Seaway; Eaton & Haas Falling Star; Oldham's The Ismay Line.
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Dec 13, 1999
Joe & Mark,
Good to see your most interesting comments over this, an almost forgotten tragedy. I was able to visit the Atlantic Memorial last year in Nova Scotia - what a bleak and inaccesible spot! I have just ordered the Keith Hatchard book "The Two Atlantics - The Shipwreck of the SS Atlantic" The only other one I know of being "The Coal Was There For Burning".
Best wishes


Scott Blair

Hi Folks,

You may know this,but there is an article on the
disaster in the current THS Commutator,with part
2 in the next issue.

Jul 9, 2000
Easley South Carolina
Gee, now you guys just whetted my appitite. The Titanic Commutator for this fall has an artical on the Atlantic. Now I'll just have to make some time to read it today.

Has anyone else seen this artical?

Michael H. Standart
Dec 12, 1999
Not being a member of THS I didn't know that they had done an article on S.S. Atlantic. It truly seems to be a "forgotten tragedy." Recently, there was an article to the effect that the sea has washed away the Nova Scotia shoreline and caused bones, etc., of Atlantic's victims to be exposed. Apparently, a historical preservation group is trying to raise funds to move the graves.
Dec 12, 1999
Another thought, why isn't Cunard paying to preserve this gravesite (like it is for the Titanic victim's graves in Halifax)? It seems that they should pay for its preservation. Mark's quote from a survivor about the loss of the steerage women and children on board S.S. Atlantic is really horrifying. I hope I can sleep tonight.

Dave Gittins

Mar 16, 2000
In answer to Joe's original query, neither enquiry brought up the Atlantic affair. It was rather stale news by 1912. Also, Mersey's court was ordered to try very specific questions, from which he was reluctant to depart. While we're doing a spot of White Star bashing, don't forget Naronic, which sailed off to oblivion in 1893. White Star safety compared poorly with Cunard, not to mention the much larger German lines.

As to paying to maintain the graves, I imagine Titanic was a one-off. White Star did everything it could by way of public relations after the sinking. The line was under no obligation to even recover bodies, let alone bury them and maintain their graves indefinitely. I don't know what overseas practice is, but here even people who pay for a burial plot in a cemetery don't always keep it forever. The graves are reused quite soon. Does it matter if they are shipwreck victims?

Karen Angstadt

Hi Dave, when you say the Naronic sailed off into oblivion, do you mean it's never been found?
Dec 12, 1999
He means Naronic sailed into oblivion, in February 1892, purportedly in the area where Titanic sank.

Geoffry Marcus in Titanic, The Maiden Voyage, (Viking, 1974) observes “The perennial danger of ice in these waters had been known to seamen for centuries, as is amply clear from successive editions of the sailing directions.” Other ships had perished in these same sea lanes with loss of life, and less than twenty years before Titanic’s illfated trip, the “Naronic,” also bound to New York on her maiden voyage, disappeared. Other ships, “Allegheny,” “State of George,” and “Huronian” were also listed as “missing.”

It's worth mentioning, too, that the White Star Line ship S.S. Republic, sank after a collision with another ship off Nantucket Island in 1909. This ship, however, was discussed at the Senate hearings (because its wireless operator, J.H. Binns, testified), but only peripherally.

So, to sum up, White Star Line suffered the following disasters: Atlantic (1873, 572 lost), Naronic (1892, all lost in area where Titanic sank), Republic (1909, ? lost), and Titanic (1912, 1,522 lost). Plus, as Marcus points out, there were many other ships which had sank in the area of Titanic's loss, including White Star's Naronic. That's quite a revelation, isn't it?

As Marcus points out above, captains would have been well aware of perennial ice dangers. Knowing this, it seems unfathomable that Captain Smith and Mr. Ismay could assume such risks. Not to criticize Dave's fine research on the Californian which I've seen on his web page, but frankly, here we are, splitting hairs over the Californian incident, and hardly anyone seems to be aware of White Star Line's blatantly horrible safety record. And for Lord Mersey to purposefully overlook this - - what a cheese he must have been! Some buff should find his grave, wherever it is, and sprinkle some salt on it - - maybe even deface the gravestone with graffiti.

I submit that this is your answer to the question of why there was Titanic disaster, and the concomitant loss of life. Everything else pales in comparison.

One more thought: I think this reflects how extensively we are all still flushing out facts covered within the parameters of the original hearings, and that our further understanding of the Titanic disaster is circumscribed by the 1912 hearings transcripts. As such, I think we have to understand the subtle implication that the the defendants' and others (such as Lord Mersey's) strategies in controlling information, liability, and engaging in damage control are still with us - - still controlling the parameters of our debate on this board.

Karen Angstadt

I think knowing about all of those ships I would have had a difficult time traveling with the White Star Line. Although back then your choices were kind of limited.
Jul 9, 2000
Easley South Carolina
The irony perhaps is that the White Star Line had safety as one of it's selling points in it's adverts...in big bold letters too.

Although I have to wonder if White Star's bad rep is in a sense really justified. Their ships made literally thousands of crossings without incident as did the ships of many other lines. Nor were their practices really any that much different from that of other lines. They just had the odds catch up to them with tragic consequences.

In my opinion, I beleive it important to remember that this is the North Atlantic we're talking about. An area notorious for violent storms, fog that could take days to get through, and any number of other hazards like overgrown icecubes that kill ships. Some areas are called "Graveyard Of Ships" for very good reason. I've personally sailed off Cape Hattaras and the weather there can go from bad to worse with little or no warning. Throw in rocks and shoals along with icebergs, fog and storms and you begin to marvel that the crossing could be made safely at all.

Michael H. Standart
Dec 12, 1999
Here's what another site ("Titanic and other White Star Line ships") says about Naronic:

" . . . Naronic's 7th voyage (Feb. 11, 1893) inbound to New York with 74 passengers would be her last. After departing Liverpool, she was never heard from or seen again. Almost a month later, the steamer Coventry enroute to England from Newport News, Va., spotted one of Naronic's lifeboats floating upside down in the water, 500 hundred miles off the coast of Halifax. The next day another boat was spotted. Later in the month, a total of 4 bottles with messages in them stating that they were written by Naronic passengers, began to wash up on the shores of New York and Virginia. Two of the messages stated that the Naronic had struck an iceberg . . . the location of the Naronic lifeboats was only 90 miles from where Titanic struck an iceberg; also an area thought to be a very unlikely location for icebergs to be."

So a White Star Line ship, Naronic, was struck by an iceberg near where Titanic hit an iceberg. Everyone was lost. Before that, another White Star Line ship, Atlantic, was lost where the captain was proceding at an excessive speed.

How could Captain Smith, with something like 45 years of experience (25 years as a captain) that spanned both of these disasters, and having been employed by the same line that owned Naronic and Atlantic - - not have been acutely aware of the extreme risk of sailing Titanic at full steam into an ice field?

Let's posthumously cross-examine him . . .

-"Captain Smith, where did Titanic go down?"

Smith: "I would say some 425 miles from Halifax."

-"Captain, you've been sailing the seas for 45 years, and been a captain for 25 years, right?

Smith: "Yes . . ."

-"In those years your practice, you say, has been to travel at full speed and keep a lookout for ice, correct?

Smith: "Yes, I put the sharpest men I have in the crows nest. The speed is not problematic. And they can spot the bergs with plenty of time."

-"How comes it then, they did not spot the berg which struck Titanic in sufficient time?"

Smith: "It was the unusual conditions, never before have I seen such conditions at sea."

-"Am I correct, again, that you assert 'never before have you seen such conditions at sea?'"

Smith: "Never before . . . everything was against us. It was fate."

-"Captain, has you ever heard of the a ship, the S.S. Atlantic?"

Smith: "Er, yes . . . ah, I'm not exactly sure."

-"Let me jog your memory, the year is 1873, the ship is owned by your employer, the White Star Line, correct?"

Smith: "Yes, I think so."

-"Are you sure?"

Smith: "I said I think that's true."

-"I am entering into evidence Plaintiff's Exhibit No. 159, a copy of the official transcript of the Board of Inquiry for the S.S. Atlantic disaster. Captain, have you seen this before?"

Smith: (perusing the document, ears and neck getting redder) "I'm not sure whether I have, I don't recall."

-"Captain, look at page 43, at the bottom, do you see that? Can you read it . . ."

Smith: " . . . the S.S. Atlantic was traveling at an excessive speed such that Captain William negligently placed passengers' lives at risk, resulting in the death of 572 persons."

-"Does this jog your memory at all?"

Smith: "No, I don't see the point."

-"In your magnificent 45 year career you never heard of the Atlantic . . . you never heard of a ship's excessive speed in dangerous waters placing passengers lives at risk?"

Smith: "No . . ."

-"Captain Smith, have you heard of the White Star Line?"

Smith: "Silly, of course."

-"But in your 45 years of sea travel, you never heard of the fate of your own employer's steamship, Atlantic, some 39 years ago?"

Smith: "Well, maybe something, it's a little foggy now."

-"Captain Smith, have you ever heard of the Naronic?"

Smith: "Er . . eh . . ."

-"Captain Smith, need I rephrase the question, have you heard of Naronic?"

Smith: "Well, it was a ship that disappeared years ago?"

-"It disappeared near where your ship disappeared, did it not?"

Smith: "Well, there was an overturned life boat found. . ."

-"Like the overturned boat that McKay-Bennett found, right . . . Captain, I would like to introduce Plaintiff's exhibit 160 now, can you tell me what this is?"

Smith: "Well, I don't know, it's a bottle, a note, something like that."

-"What does the note say, Captain."

Smith: "It says: 'S.S. Naronic, struck iceberg some 500 miles off Halifax."

-"For the record, this is a note from a bottle washed ashore in New York. Captain, when did Naronic disappear?"

Smith: "I think in 1892 or 93 . . ."

-"That's certainly went you were sailing the North Atlantic, wasn't it. Didn't you ever discuss this disaster with your mates?"

Smith: "Yeah, sometimes we talked about it . . ."

-"So before Titanic sank, Captain, White Star Line's Atlantic had been lost to excessive speed, and White Star Line's Naronic had struck an iceberg near where Titanic was lost, correct?"

Smith: (very red by now) "Yes."

-"Captain, these ships were lost in 1873 and 1893, and they were lost during your tenure on the seas, isn't that correct?"

Smith: "Yes, for god's sake."

-"Captain, when you sailed Titanic at its top speed into that icefield on April 14, 1912, you knew that these ships had been lost, one for excessive speed, the other to an iceberg, right?"

Smith: "Yes . . ."

-"You clearly knew of the dangers, the potential risk of extreme loss of life, and you proceeded anyway, right?"

Smith: "Yes . . ."

-"And given the incidents in the record, it was not the unusual conditions, then, was it captain?"

Lord Mersey: "Well, I think he understands that it's a matter of . . ."

-"Your lordship, please! It is for him to answer. It's error for anyone else to interject now, and I respectfully represent that I will immediately file a writ of mandamus with the appellate court if need be . . ."

Smith: (tears, rubbing eyes) "Well . . . No, it wasn't. I'm sorry, I'm very sorry to everyone, I did it because the President of the White Star Line was on board, he wanted to get into New York as soon as possible, it was for the newspapers, he told me to . . ."
Sep 12, 2000
Dear Joe. Loved your Perry Mason version of the Enquiry. But I noticed that you wrote this whilst the "Lordite versus Non-Lordite 2000 Years War rages on in another room. he he Maureen.

Mike Poirier

Dec 12, 1999
Actually Joe, the Coventry did not find the lifeboats 400 miles off Halifax. It was mid atlantic. The Coventry was on it's way to Bremen. And there were no ice sightings in the ships's general course. What historians do know is that there were reports of a ferocious mid atlantic storm of gale force winds and towering waves. It was so bad that most ships headed back to port, except the Naronic.

Barbara DeCrow Goldberg

Hello, everyone.

I am new to this list but have met or corresponded with some of you personally. I noticed that the Republic was mentioned a few posts back, and that someone else questioned how anyone could have felt safe travelling on a White Star liner after the loss of so many White Star vessels. I will try to respond to both comments.

The sinking of the Republic was unusual in that there was very little loss of life. Two passengers on the Republic were killed during the collision with the Florida, and a third died later. In addition, four sailors on the Florida were killed. All the rest survived. Most of the Republic's passengers and some of the crew were transferred first to the Florida and then to the Baltic, which picked up the Republic's "CQD" call, and returned to New York aboard the Baltic. Captain Sealby, Jack Binns, and the remaining members of the Republic's crew were taken aboard the Revenue Cutter Gresham, transferred to the derelict destroyer Seneca, and then brought back to New York on the Revenue Cutter Manhattan, where they were received as heroes.

In some ways, the rescue of the Republic's passengers, which was largely effectuated by wireless, may have contributed to a false sense of security concerning the safety of ocean travel. Wireless, of course, had not been available at the time of the Atlantic and Naronic disasters. The availability of almost instant communication which could summon help, combined with popular articles on the safety of ocean travel (such as the article in World's Work which quoted Captain Smith as saying that he could not conceive of the circumstances under which the Adriatic might founder) may have combined to convince the travelling public that the fate of the Atlantic and Naronic was a thing of the past. Significantly, even after the sinking of the Republic, there were many articles which extolled the safety of ocean travel and the safety features of modern ships. While there were a few who noted the discrepancy between the lifeboat capacity and the number of passengers typically carried, they unfortunately were in the minority.
Jul 9, 2000
Easley South Carolina
Hello Barbera, and welcome aboard the Good Ship Titanic. Those were some interesting points you raised. Especially in regards to the difference that radio made in saving lives.

I hope you have time to drop in the introductions folder and tell us a little bit about yourself.

Michael H. Standart

Traci Miller


I have seen the Atlantic article and found it very interesting, as I was not aware of the facts surrounding the Atlantic. Joe, you might want to see if you can't take a look at this article.

I also think that the White Star's "bad" record shouldn't be taken on its face. It's much the same with airline accidents today - just because a particular vessel foundered does not mean that the entire line was faulty. Both White Star, and then Cunard, had several successes - not just tragedies.

Best regards,
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