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.
Titanic was built to make money but not on the backs of immigrants as some claim. Instead they were designed to make money from wealthy passengers who would travel both ways. Second class was designed for tourists and professionals who traveled less often but wanted the comforts such a ship offered. And finally you had third class (steerage back then) who paid the smallest fare but proportionally were the largest in numbers. However despite their numbers, they were a smaller revenue generator compared to first class passengers.
Joseph Mortati in Collision Course:How Good Business Decisions Sank the Titanic and Why refutes the standard thinking by going through the concept of the new White Star ships and how they were designed to make money. Cunard, which had the faster ships of the day that broke records, sacrificed speed for comfort. The line was also subsidized by the British government to prevent it from being bought out by a foreign entity. That gave them a 2-1 advantage over White Star. They had speed and government backing. Ismay had to come up with a way to compete that would make money. Competing on speed would be difficult and expensive. They could still market to immigrants seeking to cross over to United States but they knew it was a diminishing trade over time.
Focusing on repeat travelers then became important. And not just any repeat travelers but ones who were very wealthy and willing to pay extra for comfort. They could charge higher tickets for them and provide amenities a hotel on land would provide. It was a daring and bold plan that hinged on getting the wealthy to buy tickets. It required a marketing campaign to convince them that ships like Olympic or Titanic were the ships to be on and be seen on. What Mortati found was that Olympic compared to Lusitania would make 40% more per round trip because of those higher ticket prices. And while immigrants still comprised 50% of passengers aboard, revenue from them was 20%. Which means 80% came from first and second class passengers and mostly from first class.
Now that debunks the myth. Had Olympic, Titanic, or Brittanic been built to make lots of money from immigrants, the proportions would have been very different. Instead you would have third class being the significant revenue generator and first and second class bringing around 20% combined of the total revenue.
Sir William White (2 February 1845 – 27 February 1913) is a name unknown to many unless you are a maritime historian or a naval architect. During his time as chief constructor of the Royal Navy, he oversaw the construction of numerous battleships, cruisers, and unarmored warships. He retired in 1902 after suffering a nervous breakdown in 1901 due to a mishap involving the royal yacht Victoria and Albert. He went to work for Cunard as a consulting architect for RMS Mauretania. He also became president of Institution of Civil Engineers, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and Institution of Marine Engineers. From 1909-1910 he was council chairman for the Royal Society of Arts, and was governor of Imperial College until his death in 1913.
His contribution to Titanic came during the American inquiry. He penned a long letter to The Times about how the media had sensationalized the story resulting in premature opinions as to what happened. While the lifeboat issue was certainly important, naval engineers had to come up ways to keep the ship from sinking when they collide with icebergs. Merely slowing down would not be enough (and passengers might not like moving slowly across the ocean).
White argued for improving the water-tight subdivision of ships. The Titanic used transverse compartments that ran the width of ship which did not work. He proposed future designs add longitudinal compartments that ran from bow to stern.
Many ships were retrofitted after Titanic’s sinking, like having their double bottoms extended up the sides to the waterline giving them double hulls (this was done on Olympic). Other ships altered the height of the bulkheads to make them fully watertight.