Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Wreck of the Steamship Atlantic, 1873

Canadian Geographic, Dec 1981/Jan 1982

Forty years before the Titanic disaster, the White Star Line lost another great steamship off of Mosher Island, 14 miles southwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia.  On April 1, 1873, this was the largest single-ship loss of life at that time.  Constructed by Harland and Wolff in Belfast two years before, the Atlantic was made of iron with six water-tight bulkheads, 420 feet long and with a 41 foot beam, and four masts as a backup should the her compound engines fail.  Carrying 900 passengers and crew, the ship was low on coal because the shipowners had only provided the bare minimum of low quality coal, which a fierce storm had helped to further reduce.  The captain altered course for Halifax, but tragically mistook the position of the ship.  Mistaking the Prospect lighthouse for the one off of Halifax Harbour, he steered the ship into the "ironbound coast" off Mosher Island.  At 3 a.m. the ship ran full steam into Mars Head, bursting the boilers.  The ship's length to beam ratio of 11 to 1 contributed to what happened next:  she rolled over quickly, exposing the deck to the seas, and whole families were swept into the frigid waves.  The island was a desolate place, and it was not until dawn that someone came by on the shore and saw the half-submerged steamer.  In spite of valliant efforts (especially by the Reverend William Ancient, an itinerant Anglican preacher) at least 550 people perished, including all of the women and all but one of the children.

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