On 27 September 1854 the SS Arctic collided with SS Vesta in heavy fog killing 322 people. The Arctic was a wooden hull passenger steamer ship launched in 1850 for the Collins Line. It was one of four ships the company built using U.S. government subsidies to challenge the British-backed Cunard line. The Collins Line had successfully bid to be subsidized as a mail and a passenger ship to Europe in 1847. As part of the deal in receiving the subsidies, the line agreed that in times of war they might be called into service as a troop transport or other need.
The launching of the ship in 1850 was well regarded at the time. She was considered one of the best vessels constructed up to that time and thousands witnessed her launch at Brown shipyards on the New York East River. And her top speed was 13 knots, a significant achievement making her known as the “clipper of the sea.” Not only was she fast but luxurious with her fittings and accommodations. Under captain James Luce, the ship underwent her sea trials and first regular service without incident. In 1853 she ran aground on Burbo Bank in Liverpool Bay while enroute to New York. She had to be refloated and returned to Liverpool. In 1854 she struck the Black Rock of the Saltee Islands from Liverpool to New York. Once again, she was refloated and sent to Liverpool. Arctic’s engines though were expensive to operate, and they had to rely on an invention by a Baltimore firm to reduce costs. The engines also put a strain on the wooden hulls as well.
On 27 September 1854 while enroute to New York from Liverpool, a sudden and heavy fog came up 50 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Captain Luce did not take the usual precautions of slowing down, adding extra watches, and sounding the horn. At 12:15 pm, the Arctic collided with iron-hulled French steamer Vesta. At first Captain Luce thought the smaller vessel had taken more damage. However, the iron hulled ship had significantly damaged the Arctic and it was sinking. Under the maritime rules of the time, the ship had six lifeboats that would carry 180 people. However, there were 400 people aboard, 200 passengers and 150 crew. Discipline broke down quickly as many scrambled for the few lifeboats available. There was no “women and children first” enforced and many of the crew got into lifeboats. Those that remained had to use makeshift rafts. Captain Luce went down with the ship but survived the sinking. Two of the lifeboats made it to land. Another was picked up by another steamer. The other three lifeboats were never seen again.
The losses were staggering as all the women and children perished, including the wife of Edward Collins and two of his children that were aboard at the time. Other prominent people perished as well, and a rare copy of William Shakespeare First Folio was lost as well. News of the sinking did not reach New York until 2 weeks later due to limited telegraphy. The news brought a groundswell of anger in newspapers and public opinion. There were demands for an investigation and to change the law about lifeboats required. They were never acted upon and no one was ever held to account. Captain Luce was not generally considered to be at fault but retired. The scandal of so many crew surviving instead of women and children would result in many surviving crew members did not return to the US.
The Collins Line suffered further after that. The SS Pacific disappeared without a trace in 1856 enroute to New York from Liverpool. Many believe it collided with an iceberg and sank as it raced to arrive earlier than the Cunard liner Persia. All 55 passenger and 141 crew were lost along with its freight. Her remains were found in 1993 off the coast of Wales (some dispute this though) and some alternative theories of her fate have been put forward. The SS Adriatic was launched on April 7, 1856 but did not do her sea trials till 1857. However due to a depression, Congress reduced the subsidy to $385,000. In February 1858, the line suspended operations and in April went into bankruptcy. All of its remaining vessels were auctioned off and the company paid off its creditors. That left Cunard, for a time, without much opposition in the passenger trade between Europe and the United States.