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LOSS OF THE STEAMER “ARCTIC.”

print of Steam Ship Arctic with background colorization © todayinsci.com
Currier & Ives Print of Steam Ship Arctic c. 1850
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[p.18] I find in my scrap-book an account of the loss of this fine American steamer. I quote from a paper, dated New York, Dec. 2, 1854, the following:

“At the time of the collision between the ‘Arctic’ and the British iron vessel ‘Vesta,’ there was a thick fog. The ‘Vesta’ was seen about two points on the starboard bow; her helm was put to port. She had all sails set, with the wind on her starboard quarter. She struck the ‘Arctic;’ they cleared each other at once, and the ‘Vesta’ disappeared. It was seen that nearly her whole bow was torn off to her foremast, had a rank heel, and appeared to be sinking. Captain Luce at once sent his boats to the rescue; he had no idea that his ship was seriously injured. His first [p.19] officer, Mr. Gourlie, went in charge of the boats. Some twenty minutes elapsed before the chief engineer, Mr. Rogers, discovered that the ‘Arctic’ was leaking freely; by this time the ships had come close together again. Captain Luce went to see Mr. Rogers, and ordered the boats to be hoisted up; he met the first assistant engineer, Mr. Dignon, who said the ship was leaking badly. Every means was at once resorted to to heel the ship to port; the passengers were ordered to go to the port quarter. In the mean time the engineer said the leak was gaining and that he must keep up steam so that he could work the pumps to advantage; the course was altered in order to find Mr. Gourlie, the chief mate. When he was found, one of the ‘Vesta’s’ boats was making for the ‘Arctic;’ its occupants were confused and got under the paddlewheels, and all save one perished. The steamer circled round, and Mr. Gourlie was told to come alongside; but he did not, and Captain Luce stood to the westward and told him to follow. By this time a sail had been placed over the hole in the bow, and everything done to keep the water from rushing in; but the sharp bow and the headway of the ship prevented these from being successful. A raft was constructed. Men were sent below to try to stop the hole; but the plank only being fractured, it could not be got at. Men were busy removing cargo, and everything done to lighten the bow, even to cutting away anchors and letting the cables go. The firemen had got at the spirit-room and were getting crazy. Captain Luce took measures to get rid of the liquor; the steward, Mr. Randal, was ordered to prepare supplies for the boats. By this time the water had reached the lower fires and was [p.20] nearly up to the others. Captain Luce ordered the boats to be prepared for lowering and to break down partitions and doors in order to have every floating power ready for the impending crisis. The port boat was lowered safely under the immediate superintendence of Captain Luce, when the firemen made a rush, claiming that they had rights as well as the ladies. The boat was slacked astern with about 20 in her, then some wretch in the boat cut the painter and shoved off; thus was lost a boat capable of carrying 80! Then the attention was given to another boat, and she was safely lowered and put in charge of the second officer, and it was ordered that she should be kept sacred for the women and children; but a rush was made for it as for the other, and she went adrift and was no more seen. She contained the second and fourth officers, the boatswain’s mate, the carpenter, the first assistant engineer, six seamen, several firemen, and several passengers. In the mean time another boat on the other side had been lowered by one end; and throwing overboard a number who perished, the boat was righted and a number of passengers got in. Before it was one quarter filled she was cut adrift, taking every remaining seaman.

“Preparations were made for firing guns in the hope of attracting vessels; but the quartermaster, who had charge of the powder, could not be found, and Captain Luce was obliged to break open the magazine and fire the guns with the help of young Holland and some of the passengers.

“The construction of a large raft occupied the attention of Captain Luce and the only officer remaining, Mr. Dorian, the third mate. The only available boat [p.21] was got over by engineers and others, and supplied with provisions; about fifteen persons got into her and pulled off about a quarter of a mile and remained there until the ship went down! The only remaining boat was used to help in building the raft.”

Currier and Ives lithograph print of Steam Ship Arctic sinking
Currier & Ives hand-colored lithograph print (c. 1854) of Wreck of the U.S.M. Steam Ship “Arctic”: off Cape Race Wednesday September 27th. 1854.
Artist: James E. Butterworth; after a sketch by James Smith; on stone by Charles Parsons. (source)

In a publication entitled “Remarks on Ocean Steam Navigation,” I find some suggestions which I quote:

“The saloon deck of steamers [generally built on the hurricane deck in those days] ought to be so built and fastened as to be readily detached and used as a raft. A short time ago the idea of constructing steamers to sink with comparative safety to her people would have been considered with ridicule; but from the experience of the ‘Arctic’ we realize that good ships can sink and many lives be lost from want of due care in construction.

“It would be a good plan to have all apertures — as hatches, doors in the bulkheads, etc. — so contrived as to be made air-tight and help to smother fire, and in such cases as the ‘Arctic ‘ to keep her afloat as long as possible. I do not hesitate to say that had the main engines been stopped as soon as it became certain she must sink, and every aperture closed, the ship would have filled less rapidly.

“I have another suggestion to make. Assuming that the boilers of the ‘Arctic’ contained each 3,900 cubic feet, which at 35 cubic feet to the ton gives 111 tons, deducting water in the boilers and furnaces, say 40 tons, we have 71 tons of floating power, supposing the ship to be so far full of water. There being four boilers, we have 284 tons of floating power; but the boilers being full of water, this buoyancy could be of no use unless means had been provided for blowing [p.22] off the water. How could this be done? Consulting the eminent engineer, John Ericsson, he said: ‘Supposing the water in the ship to have been about six feet above the bottom of the boilers, and the water line in the boilers four feet higher or ten feet above the bottom of the boilers, by stopping the engines, arresting the escape of steam, and opening all blow-off cocks, the water could have been ejected; but as soon as the level of the hot water had got a little below the level of the cold water in the ship’s hold, the remaining steam would have condensed and a complete vacuum would have been formed in the boilers. Now, unless the blow-off cocks had been shut at the moment, the water would of course rush in and refill the boilers; but if the cocks had been shut at the proper time, the water in the boilers would be reduced from 10 to 6 feet, making a gain of say 70 tons in the four boilers.

“‘If on the other hand, the engines had been stopped when the water in the ship reached the bottom of the boilers, and the fires drawn, the internal pressure might have been used to eject every pound of water; and in that case if an air pipe could have been used to let in air from the deck or engine-room and so fill the boilers with air, the moment the water in the ship had got high enough to cause the remaining steam to condense and the aforesaid vacuum to approach, the consequence must follow that the full floating power of the boilers, 284 tons, would be exerted to make the ship sink slower or float indefinitely. In order to use this power in future steamships it will only be necessary to have means to close the blow-off cocks from the deck and have an air pipe to each boiler to use at pleasure.’”

[p.23] The foregoing is an exact quotation from Ericsson. In the pamphlet alluded to I find the following remarks: “It will no doubt be argued that at a time of great danger in a sinking ship, the problem would not be solved accurately and with good judgment; this is quite likely, but it affords no good reason for not providing the means. If all the means indicated can be used, the chances of confusion and panic such as prevailed on board the ‘Arctic’ would be much lessened.”

To quote further from my pamphlet: “I come now to speak of the mistakes made in the management of the ‘Arctic’; in making these, I would not be understood as blaming Captain Luce, for I am quite sure that he thought only of the safety of his passengers. It is very easy sitting at one’s fireside, after the disaster, to say what ought to have been done. The land was supposed to be 40 or 50 miles off, and steaming for it not only increased the leak but carried the ship out of the track of vessels.

“The ship should have been stopped and all means used to get the boats ready, all apertures stopped, and the masts should have been cut away to form rafts. In all the accounts I have seen, no allusion has been made to cutting away the masts.

“The principal cause of the great loss of life in this case was the want of sufficient boats and a want of due organization for such an emergency. If the ‘Arctic’ had no more boats than the ‘Baltic,’ in which I made a passage, not over 200 persons could have been put into them with any chance of safety, even in smooth water.

“The abandonment of the first mate, although [p.24] dictated by humane motives, was a fatal error, for there was lost one of the best boats and the services of one of her best officers and his crew. Captain Luce exhibited his humane conduct by sending this boat, as he supposed, to assist the sinking ‘Vesta.’ Who is there with such a vast accumulation of responsibility on his mind and heart could have done more than he?

“Surrounded by despairing friends looking to him for superhuman exertions, deserted by most of those who had been accustomed to look up to him for advice, what more could he do but to exhibit by manly example that if he had been properly supported many might have been saved?

“As to the desertion of seamen and firemen, with few exceptions, they were men not particularly attached to the ship or to her people; they followed the instinct of self-preservation.

“If they had been duly organized, and if they had felt that the boats and other floating power could sustain all hands, there would have been on the record of humanity many acts of devotion to duty; but without preconcerted discipline what could have been expected of them but to rush for the boats? The few who did not do this deserve to be enrolled among the heroes.

“Captain Luce was not wholly responsible for the want of order, — maybe less so than the law-makers and the public. Officers of ships have so little support by the laws that they are content to get from port to port and be blind and deaf to the insubordination of seamen and firemen. As to the latter, the officers do not know them by name; they are solely under the control of the engineers. The engineers, so far as I can judge by short experience, are not put on the [p.25] same footing in American steamers as they are on board of those engaged in the India trade. If proper confidence existed between the engineers’ department and the ship’s officers and seamen, less confusion would exist in times of danger. Every man on board should have a station in case of alarm. I understand from one of the ‘Arctic’s’ officers that she had a good set of seamen; and I can only attribute their desertion to the fact that they had no confidence in the means provided to save them.

“The law says seamen must stick by the ship and assist the passengers, and seeing them safely placed in boats, may coolly await their fate; but what seaman can be expected to study Blackstone and Story in a sinking ship?

“These remarks are not made in a captious spirit, nor by one who considers his opinions eminently orthodox; but they are submitted by one who believes that if all who consider themselves more so on marine matters would express their views with equal candor, some desirable results might be arrived at to mitigate the dangers of the sea.

“For Captain Luce I entertain a personal regard which cannot be impaired by greater mistakes than I have attributed to his overburdened spirit. I may say in conclusion that among the many emotions to which a life of some peril by land and sea have exposed me, none ever came to my heart more strongly than the simple words I saw on a bulletin board while passing through New York a few days since, ‘Captain Luce saved.’”

These remarks, reprinted after thirty-five years of thought, are to my mind just as appropriate to-day.

[p.26] When the ship finally sank, Captain Luce was standing on one of the paddle-boxes and went down some distance, when the box itself or parts of it became detached, and he rose with it. I have no record of the manner in which he was rescued, nor of the number who perished, nor how the propeller “Vesta” escaped, nor what became of the boats that left the ship, but that 562 perished, and among them a young son of Captain Luce, who went down in his arms, but on coming to the surface he was struck by a portion of the paddle-box and killed. After floating about some time Captain Luce was picked up by a fishing-boat and carried to Montreal.

It was supposed for some time that he had perished, but at last the news came over the wires that he was saved, and he was welcomed home by crowds, who said, “We welcome you; and the whole people hold you in their hearts as God has held you in his hands!”

Images added (not in original text) from sources shown above. Text from Robert Bennet Forbes, Notes on Some Few of the Wrecks and Rescues During the Present Century (1889), 18-26. (source)


Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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- 90 -
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- 40 -
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- 20 -
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- 10 -
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