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Wreck of the Atlantic, 1873

Sessional Papers of the Government of Canada, 37 Victoria 1873 (4), pp. lvi-lvii. Note: the 1873 date on these papers is an error and should have read 1874

Report on the Wreck of the Atlantic

...The wreck of the ocean steamer Atlantic on a rock, about fifty yards distant from Meagher's Island, in the County of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the 1st April, 1873, will long be remembered as one of the most disastrous wrecks which ever occurred on the North American coast; for not only was the vessel and nearly all the cargo a total loss, but on that fearful night, or rather morning, when the sad event took place, 545 souls were swept into eternity-many of them with scarcely a moment's warning. The vessel struck the rock nearly square on, about fifteen minutes after three o'clock on the morning of the day alluded to. In a few minutes after the vessel struck, several hundreds of the passengers and crew reached the deck, but the vessel having swung round and heeled over with her deck nearly perpendicular and facing to seaward, many of the poor helpless passengers were washed off by the fearful seas which swept over her, and as she soon filled with water, those under deck were drowned, without a chance to struggle for life. From the position of the vessel it was found impossible to lower the boats and render them available for saving life, and no assistance reached the vessel from the shore till some time after the accident had happened. The result of this frightful disaster was, as already stated, a loss of 545 persons out of 957 people on board. This steamship was one of the "White Star" Line running between Liverpool and New York, and was probably one of the finest ocean steamers that ever left the United Kingdom. She was owned by the Ocean Steam Navigation Company of Liverpool, was an iron vessel, built at Belfast in 1871, and measured 3,707 tons, gross measurement, and 2,366 net or register tonnage. Her engines were 600 horse power; length, 420 feet; breadth, 40 feet 9-10ths; depth, 31 feet; and her value when new, was about 100,000 sterling. Her commander was Capt. James A. Williams, who had a certificate of competency as extra Master, and three of the four Mates on board held certificates of competency as Masters.

Immediately after the intelligence of this disaster was received by this Department the Dominion government steamer Lady Head proceeded to the wreck for the purpose of rendering any assistance possible and bringing the rescued passengers to Halifax; and on the recommendation of the Minister of Marine, Mr. E.M. Macdonald, the Collector of Customs at Halifax, was appointed to hold a Court or Tribunal under the fifth section of the Act 32 and 33 Vict., cap. 38, to investigate into the cause of the disaster, and he called to his assistance Captain P.A. Scott, R.N., an officer of this Department, and Captain George A. McKenzie, a retired master mariner of much experience, and both of these gentlemen concurred with him in the decision which he rendered. The Commissioner's Report will be found in Appendix No. 38. The Court censured the captain severely for his conduct previous to the disaster, but commended the praiseworthy and energetic efforts made by him to save life after the vessel struck, and in consequence thereof, imposed the mitigated penalty of suspension of his certificate for two years. Mr. Brown, the fourth officer, was censured for want of vigilance, and for violation of the captain's orders, who directed that he was to be called at twenty minutes to three o'clock, and for this his certificate was suspended for three months. The cause of the disaster appears to have been a westerly current setting off the Nova Scotia shore, as the ship struck some twelve or thirteen miles to the westward of where Captain Williams thought he was steering for, which was a little to the eastward of Halifax Harbour. If due and proper vigilance had been used by heaving the lead and looking out for lights and land, the true position of the steamer might have been ascertained in time to prevent this disaster.

Soon after the wreck, and while Parliament was in Session, the Government, on the recommendation of the Minister of Marine, placed in the Supplementary Estimates the sum of $3,000 for the purpose of defraying expenses in connection with the burial of the bodies recovered from the wreck, and for providing coffins, &c., and for conferring rewards on the Rev. Mr. Ancient and the other inhabitants in the vicinity of Prospect Cape, who rescued and provided for the persons saved. This amount was voted accordingly, and has nearly all been expended in the service for which it was intended. A handsome gold watch, valued at $120 and $500 in money was presented by the Dominion government to the reverend gentleman alluded to for his noble and humane exertions in rendering assistance on the occasion referred to; and a gold watch of the same value was presented to Edward Ryan, Esq., J.P. for eminent services rendered on the same occasion. The sum of $1,560 was also distributed amongst a number of persons who assisted the passengers and crew at the time of the wreck, and who afterwards took care of them by providing board and lodging. Such of the bodies as were recovered from the wreck were decently buried, and the expenses thereof were paid from this vote. A small supplementary vote will probably be necessary to defray the expenses of burying bodies recovered some time after the wreck occurred, and for properly covering the ground with earth where the bodies were buried.

Appendix No. 38 (pp. 340 -343).

Report of Investigation Into The Cause Of The Wreck Of The Steamship "Atlantic."
Halifax, N.S., April 18th, 1873.

The Court met at 3 p.m. according to notice of adjournment: present, the Commissioner, Captains Scott and McKenzie-when the Commissioner summed up the evidence and delivered the following judgment:--

The wreck of the steamship Atlantic and the loss of life unhappily attending it into the causes of which this Court has been enquiring, has been one of the most frightful marine disasters of this century. A magnificent ship, one of the finest ever built, with nearly a thousand souls on board, and a valuable cargo, was run at full speed upon the rocks of our coast, and in a few minutes became a total wreck, and more than five hundred souls were hurried into eternity.

The object of this enquiry has been to ascertain, if possible, whether this disaster, so appalling in its consequences, was one of those mysterious dispensations of Providence, the result of causes beyond the power of human skill, prudence and foresight to have prevented; or whether it arose from the want of that skill, prudence and foresight on the part of those charged with the care and safe keeping of so much property and so many valuable lives. During the progress of the enquiry, in which I have been assisted by Captain P.A. Scott and Captain Geo. A. McKenzie, every effort has been made to obtain a full statement of the facts from such of the survivors as were in a position to know any of the causes of the disaster and the circumstances immediately attending it; but throughout the investigation the difficulty has been felt that in consequence of the total loss of all the ship's records, the witnesses have had to depend upon their memory only in stating circumstances and data upon which the judgment to be delivered in the case must legally depend. And it may be that under the excitement naturally arising from the circumstances of the case, the evidence given on some points may not have been so ample and accurate in matters of detail, as it might have been, had the memory been assisted by the log-book and other records of the ship.

From the evidence taken, it appears that the steamship Atlantic, of the White Star Line, of 2,376 tons register, sailed from Liverpool on the 20th day of March, and Queenstown on the 21st, for New York, commanded by Captain James A. Willams, who held a certificate as extra master, first officer James W. Firth, holding a certificate as master; second officer M. Metcalf, third officer C.L. Brady, holding a certificate as master, and fourth officer, John Brown, holding a certificate as master, with 811 passengers, including 35 saloon, and a crew of 141 men,-making a total on board of 957 persons, of whom I believe 535 are drowned. The ship seems to have had fair weather, and experienced no difficulty until about the 26th day of March, when she encountered a gale which continued for three days, during which she made comparatively slow progress, her speed being reported at from seven to eight knots per hour.

At noon, on Monday the 31st day of March, her position was found to be about 460 miles distant from Sandy Hook. The chief engineer reported only 127 tons of coals remaining in the bunkers, and the wind continuing ahead, and the glass giving indications of unfavorable weather, Captain Williams, after a consultation with his first officer and chief engineer, prudently decided not to attempt to reach New York with so short supply of coals, but to change his course, and bear up for Halifax.

During the three preceding days, the ship had been on a reduced consumption of coals and from the fact that after this reduced consumption she was found, on the eleventh day of the passage, with less than 48 hours' supply remaining, the inference seems inevitable that she had not sufficient coals on board when sailing, for a ship of her class. From the engineers we have the information, that when using Welsh coals, her consumption was from 55 to 60 tons per day. She had on board before leaving Liverpool a total of 967 tons, of which 80 tons were used before her voyage was commenced, leaving only fourteen days' supply had the coals been of the best quality. But the coals, instead of being the best quality, were a mixture of Welsh and English, of which she consumed 70 tons per day; and this gave her less than thirteen days' supply when leaving port.

Had the circumstances of the passage been favorable, and no difficulties from head winds or foul weather been experienced, this quantity of coal might undoubtedly have carried the ship and her passengers safely to their port of destination. But the passage across the Atlantic in the winter season, without more or less of unfavorable weather, is the exception and not the rule. Favorable weather during the whole western passage in the month of March could not reasonably be expected, and the contingency of the low rate of speed resulting from head winds and foul weather, ought to have been provided for.

Under the circumstances, Captain Williams seems to have been justified in changing his course, and bearing up for Halifax. During the hour from the time the ship's position by observation was obtained on the thirty-first, until 1 p.m., a distance of about seven miles westerly was run, which made her position, by Captain William's statement, to be, at the time her course was changed, Lat: 41' 39" N., Lon: 63' 54" W., and distant about 170 miles from Sambro Light. Assuming this position to be correct, the course steered N. 24' E. or N. 33' E., magnetic, should have carried her well to the eastward of Sambro, had there been no current. It appears in the evidence that azimuths were obtained during the afternoon, and the bearing of the pole star taken during the night to correct the error of the compass. If the evidence on these points is correct (and it must be remembered that these facts are given from memory only), then it is very apparent that the ship must have been set to the westward by a current something over one knot per hour. At midnight she was estimated by the common log hove at intervals of two hours, to have run 122 miles or an average of 11 miles per hour from the time her course was changed, which would place her within about 48 miles of Sambro. At that hour the watch was changed, the first and third officers going below, the ship being left in charge of the second and fourth officers. Soon after midnight, the Captain left the deck and retired to his chart room, giving orders to his servant to call him at 2.40; and to the officer of the watch to call him at 3 o'clock or sooner, if they made the light, or if there was any change in the weather.

During the three hours no light was seen; the Captain's servant came to call him at 2.40 as ordered, but was prevented from so doing by the first officer. It also appears that the officers left in charge did not obey the command given by Captain Williams, to awake him at 3 o'clock, for I find that he slept until awakened by the shock of the ship striking the shore, at from twelve to fifteen minutes after three.

The ship struck upon a rock, which, upon a visit to the locality, I find to be about 70 or 80 feet in width, and distant about 50 yards from Meaghers Island. She seems to have struck nearly square on, with her head to the northward, her bow remaining fast, but her stern immediately swinging around to the eastward. In a few minutes after striking, several hundred of the passengers and crew rushed upon deck; but at the end of that time she listed to seaward, her deck becoming nearly perpendicular, when all access to the stairways leading from the saloon and steerages was cut off, and those remaining between decks were drowned by the ship filling with water. The conduct of Captain Williams and his officers during the time of trial after the ship struck, seems to have been all that could be demanded of men in their situation. Their efforts to save life appear to have been characterised by judgment, coolness, and bravery; but unfortunately all human efforts at such a time were of comparatively little avail. The sea washing over the ship, swept away by scores the timid and the weak, and only men of strong nerve were able to save themselves by the rope communicating from the wreck to the rock, and from the rock to the shore, that had been established by some of the petty officers. The ship falling over so quickly after striking, made it impossible to successfully lower any of her boats, and before assistance could reach them by boats from the fishermen residing in the locality, many of those who had succeeded in reaching the deck before the ship fell over were swept into the sea, and were drowned.

I have already said, that I believe the action of Captain Williams in bearing up for Halifax at 1 p.m. on the 31st March, was prudent and justifiable, and also that his conduct, as well as that of his officers, from the time that the ship struck, was marked by intrepidity and coolness, and a desire to do everything in their power to save the lives of those who had been entrusted to their care. But I regret that I find it impossible to speak with approval of the management of the ship from the time her course was changed at 1 p.m. on Monday, until the time she became a wreck on the morning of Tuesday. The fact of the ship striking the land at a point some 12 or 13 miles westward of that which Captain Williams believed the course he was steering ought to have made, is accounted for by the westerly current, which usually prevails to a greater or lesser extent on the coast of Nova Scotia, and which is said to run with greater force during the months of March, April and May, than during any other season of the year.

Whether or not sufficient allowance was made by Captain Williams for this current in the course that he steered, does not seem to be a question of vital importance; for it is very probable that the same error as to the speed of the ship, and the want of vigilance on the part of the officers who were on duty, which is too apparent, and the total neglect to obtain soundings or use the most ordinary precautions that ought to be used in approaching the coast, would have run the ship ashore had she been on the course that Captain Williams supposed her to be. The distance from her point of departure at 1 p.m. on Monday, to the land, had her course been directly held, being about the same as the distance from that point of departure to the spot where she was wrecked. It seems to be impossible to account in any other way than by want of vigilance for the fact of no lights being seen. It has been proved that Sambro Issland, Chebucto Head, and Devil's Island lights were all in good order on that night; Sambro Light was distinctly visible from the Devil's Island Lighthouse, a distance of about nine and a half miles, at a little before the time the ship struck, and when she should not have been more than seven or eight miles distant from Sambro Island light. The night seems to have been fine; Captain Williams states that at midnight when he left the deck, and again when he came on deck after the ship struck, the night was fine, stars being visible, and that the light ought to have been seen, and that even the land ought to have been seen at two or three miles distance. Some of the men on duty have sworn that at one time, during that interval between twelve and three, it was very black and some fine sleet falling; but the whole weight of the testimony goes to show that the night was one in which the light ought to have been seen some time before the disaster, if a proper vigilant look-out had been kept. A grave error must have been made in estimating the speed of the ship: from a reduced consumption of coal and a speed of seven knots previous to her course being changed on Monday, the consumption of coal was increased after she bore up for Sambro, to her full allowance and for her highest rate of speed. It is in evidence that under favorable circumstances with steam alone, the Atlantic would make twelve or thirteen knots per hour. After bearing up at 1 p.m. on Monday the circumstances were most favorable for attaining her best rate of speed, the wind being free and the water smooth; yet I find that at midnight Captain Williams estimated that she had made an average of only eleven knots, an estimate which the event shows must have been inaccurate. The common log was used, and that only at intervals of two hours, and the officers seem to have left the duties of heaving the log and noting the rate of speed on the log slate, to the quartermasters.

From the time when the ship bore up for Halifax until she struck, she made an average of 12 knots per hour. Assuming her point of departure at 1 p.m. on Monday to have been correctly ascertained, there is no evidence of any northern set of current to account between the distance which the ship actually ran up to midnight, and that which estimating by the log, the captain supposed her to have run. It is stated that sometimes a change of wind will produce a change of current for a few hours on the Lahave and Sable Island Banks at a distance off shore of 50 to 70 miles, but it is a well authenticated fact that, during the spring months, there is no continuous northerly set of current on this coast. The fact that the body of one of the passengers from the Atlantic was picked up a few days after the wreck, at a distance of 25 miles to the west and south, and that two trunks from the wreck were picked up at a distance of 18 miles in the same direction, show the current sets off shore. Bales of merchandize[sic] drifting seaward from the steamship Dacian, wrecked at Clam Harbour on 3rd April, last year, proved the existence of an off-shore current at that time, and we have an annual confirmation of the fact of an off shore current, in the circumstance that the ice drifting from the northward around Cape Breton, instead of lining our coast closely, (as would be the vase if a northerly current prevailed) is very rarely seen in sight of our shores to the westward of Canso. It seems, therefore, impossible to account for the error in estimating the ship's speed, except on the ground of incompetency or carelessness in calculating on the part of those attending to the log. I have also to observe that the conduct of the captain leaving the deck after midnight seems to me to have been at least imprudent, and calculated to create an impression on the minds of the officers on duty that they were not so near land as to make extra vigilance imperative. Captain Williams states that, at that time, he believed himself to be about 48 miles from land. In this belief it is now known that he must have been mistaken, and it seems to have been culpable rashness for him, under the circumstances, to order the ship to be run towards land for three hours at her, then, full speed, without taking precautions to guard against any possible error in his estimate of her position; or the event of the light, which ought to have been seen at 18 to 20 miles distance, not becoming visible in that time. Had the very ordinary precaution been taken of sending a look-out at intervals to the masthead, the disaster would, in all human probability, have been prevented. But the greatest, and I may say the fatal, error is found in the fact that the lead was never used, although the ship was within soundings for eight hours before she struck. This is a neglect of duty for which there can be positively no excuse. So accurate are the soundings laid down upon the chart, that, had the lead been used at proper intervals, the ship's safety would have been guaranteed, even had the night been one on which the lights could not possibly have been seen. It is true that the frequent use of the lead might have delayed her for a few hours in reaching port, but there was nothing to be gained in point of time by making the port before daylight; and even if there had been, those few hours of detention ought not to have been allowed to weigh against the safety of nearly 1,000 lives that were imperilled, and more than half of whom have been lost by the neglect of this plainly manifest duty.

From a careful review of all the facts of the case, I feel compelled to state my belief that the conduct of Captain Williams in the management of his ship during the 12 or 14 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, as to call for severe censure, and to justify me in saying that his certificate as Extra Master and Master might be cancelled[sic]; but in consideration of the praiseworthy and energetic efforts made by him to save life after the ship struck, the mitigated penalty of suspension of certificate for two years shall be imposed.

I also feel it my duty to state that the conduct of Mr. Brown, the fourth officer, in preventing the servant calling Captain Williams at 20 minutes to three was, under the circumstances, an improper violation of the captain's orders; and further, in the fact that he was one of the officers of the watch after 12 o'clock, ought to have seen the light and did not see it, and ought to have seen the land and did not see it. There is an implied culpable neglect and want of vigilance, which consideration for the public safety, demands should be marked by censure and moderate punishment.

I therefore adjudge that the certificate of Fourth Officer, John Brown, as Master, should be suspended for three months.

Dated at Halifax this 18th day of April, 1873.
(Signed,) E.M. Macdonald.

We concur in the above,
(Signed,) P.A. Scott.
Geo. A. Mackenzie

See also Loss of the Steamship Atlantic, White Star Line, March 30, 1873 for passenger list (off-site)


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