For some, the White Star Line is best known for its loss of the Titanic, in 1912, which was lost at sea. But prior to this, they also owned the RMS Atlantic, a transatlantic ocean liner, that operated between Liverpool, United Kingdom, and New York City.
On April 1, 1873, it ran onto rocks and sank off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing at least 535 people. At the time it was the deadliest civilian maritime disaster in the Northern Atlantic, until the sinking of SS La Bourgogne on July 2, 1898, and the greatest disaster for the White Star Line prior to the loss of Titanic 39 years later.
On March 20, 1873, the Atlantic departed on her 19th voyage from Liverpool with 835 passengers (total 952 people on board). A fateful decision was made to make port at Halifax, Nova Scotia to replenish coal for the boilers.
As they approached Halifax on the evening of March 31, the captain and 3rd officer were on the bridge until midnight, while the Atlantic made her way through a storm, proceeding at 12 knots (22 km/h) for the entrance of Halifax harbour.
Unbeknownst to the crew or passengers, the Atlantic was approximately 12 1⁄2 miles (20.1 km) off-course to the west of Halifax Harbour. They somehow did not spot the Sambro Lighthouse, which warns mariners of the rocky shoals to the west of the harbour entrance.
At 3:15 a.m. on 1 April 1873, the Atlantic struck an underwater rock off Marrs Head, Meagher’s Island (now Marrs Head, Marrs Island), Nova Scotia. Lifeboats were lowered by the crew but were all washed away or smashed as the ship quickly filled with water and flipped on its side.
When SS Atlantic began to capsize, Quartermaster John Speakerman of the vessel’s crew succeeded in taking the signal halyards to a rock looming up in front of the vessel. Third Officer Cornelius Brady followed, and together they hauled the forward fore-trysail vang [a heavier rope] from the ship to the rock. Approximately 250 men used this tenuous link, plus three other ropes, to make the 40-yard perilous journey from the vessel to the rock. Later, Speakerman swam from the rock to nearby Mosher’s Island with another rope. Although there was now a link from the vessel to the shore, most were too exhausted to make the journey, and only fifty men completed the second stage of the passage to dry land and survived.
Survivors were forced to swim or climb ropes first to a wave-swept rock and then to a barren shore. Residents of the tiny fishing village of Lower Prospect and Terence Bay soon arrived to rescue and shelter the survivors, but at least 535 people died, leaving only 371 survivors. The ship’s manifest indicates that of the 952 aboard, 156 were women and 189 were children (including two who had been born during the voyage). All women and all children perished except for one twelve-year-old boy, John Hindley. Ten crew members were lost, while 131 survived.
The Canadian government inquiry concluded with the statement, “the conduct of Captain Williams in the management of his ship during the twelve or fourteen hours preceding the disaster, was so gravely at variance with what ought to have been the conduct of a man placed in his responsible position … ”
According to one newspaper account, a body of one of the crew members was discovered to be that of a woman disguised as a man. She was about twenty or twenty-five years old and had served as a common sailor for three voyages, and her gender was never known until the body was washed ashore and prepared for burial. She is described as having been a great favourite with all her shipmates, and one of the crew, speaking of her, remarked: ‘I didn’t know Bill was a woman. He used to take his grog as regular as any of us, and was always begging or stealing tobacco. He was a good fellow, though, and I am sorry he was a woman.”
A young doctor from Germany, Emil Christiansen, had been listed as dead in transcripts of the passenger lists sent to newspapers, but it seems he had survived. Apparently, Dr. Christiansen had survived the wreck with only a broken arm and left for the United States. It is believed that he did not speak very much English and did not know how to report his status to the proper authorities.
For more about the Atlantic, I would suggest visiting Official Nova Scotia’s website.