Nova Scotia’s Titanic of 1873: the Atlantic shipwreck

I visited Nova Scotia’s Titanic over the weekend.  As a bit of a ship buff and disaster historian, I was anxious to finally see the site of one of the world’s worst Maritime disasters, which happens to be in our very backyard here on the South Shore.

Probably you haven’t heard of the S.S. Atlantic. If you have, obviously you have a keen and geeky interest in our local history… or even an in-depth knowledge of White Star Line’s rocky past, long before the Titanic met its end in the North Atlantic.

Few people need to be told about the Titanic. Thanks to James Cameron’s movie and Kate Winslet’s ample assets, most people in the Western World have a working knowledge of the shipwreck of 1912, if even that women and children had first dibs on the lifeboats as the huge White Star liner sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Needless to say, many things caused the Titanic shipwreck.

Sign to the Memorial Park in Terrence Bay.

Man’s overconfidence is definitely one.

Long before the Titanic was built at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast, another White Star creation was built to the finest specs of the day. Thomas Henry Ismay (father to dear old Bruce, who did, if you remember, survive the Titanic’s sinking) spared no expense in creating his beautiful liners circa 1870. Ismay had just purchased the White Star name and teamed up with Harland and Wolff to create ships unlike those the world had ever seen. They would be the last word in luxury, speed and safety.

Compared to the four stackers that began plying the sea in the early 1900s like the Lusitania and the Titanic, the early White Star Ships were half the length and width, bore one funnel, a slight superstructure (the building parts above the decking) and had four masts. They were steamships and powered not only by vast furnaces but also by masts and sails—required to both save coal and please those who did not quite trust that pesky new steam technology.

Though they did not have the impressive gilding that the Olympic class monsters had, the Oceanic class, made up of ships like the S.S. Atlantic,had beautiful fittings—staterooms bedecked in all sorts of fine material and decorations. Though it was only the 1870s, aboard were flush toilets and bathtubs as well as electric bells in each first class cabin. Need a class of ice water? Push a button and a steward would come fulfill your every need. Enjoy the finest eats while supping from White Star marked china. Steerage was, of course, quite spartan, but it was well ventilated and quite decent (though obviously not quite up to the same snuff as first class, or the saloon class, as it was called at the time even though they did not live in a western bar.)

I missed seeing the Interpretation Centre because the volunteers were leaving JUST as I pulled into the parking lot. Dang.

Safety was not forgotten.

Like the Titanic, the Atlantic actually carried more lifeboats that she was required to have. At the time, the same as it was in 1912, companies only had to carry so many lifeboats depending on their tonnage. So the Atlantic did not have enough lifeboats for each soul, but she did accommodate more than she was supposed to. In addition, the Atlantic’s saloon passengers had cork lifebelts in case of an emergency—this too was Ismay’s insistence and not the standards of the day (obviously no nanny state was at work here.)

And those watertight compartments? The Atlantic had those too. They were meant to prevent the ship from totally being ripped apart at once.

And like the Titanic, it really did not do much good.

White Star’s captains were to take every precaution to keep their ships and passengers above water. So when the Atlanticran into rough weather that ate up her coal faster than expected, leaving her with questionable amounts of fuel, Captain James Williams diverted the ship to Halifax to take on enough coal to make it to New York. At the time, it seemed like the safest course. Far better than being towed into New York.

Quite literally, the Memorial Park is a park, with benches and whatnot.

The problem with the change of course? Few of the officers on board the Atlantic had been near Nova Scotia. And many mariners have underestimated these parts—the shores around the province are littered with shipwrecks.

On March 31st, the Atlantic was steaming for Halifax at full speed. At midnight, the captain gave his men orders to wake him up shortly before three in the morning.

Unfortunately, between the captain and the officers, a few navigational mistakes were made. Instead of assuming they might be off course or closer to the coast than they thought, the Atlantic kept up her 11 knots or so—and might have even increased in speed.

And the captain, still recovering from life-threatening injuries he received the previous year on the Atlantic’s sister the Republic, stole a nap in the chartroom while his officers kept the ship moving through the darkness, full steam ahead. They did not wake him, but let him sleep on—whether out of malice and flouting his orders, or feeling pity for his ill-health.

Shortly after 3:15, lookouts spotted breakers ahead. But the ship was going too fast and it was too late for manoeuvring.

A ship loaded with approximately 1,000 souls smashed into an outcropping of rocks locally known as Golden Rule Rock, just off the small fishing community of Terence Bay.

Captain James Williams. Well a drawing of him which overlooks the distant wreck site.

Like the Titanic as she hit her iceberg, the Atlantic ground onto the rock the right way to rip open her side and flood her watertight compartments. Only instead of giving the passengers over two hours to escape the ship, the Atlantic was partially submerged in 10 minutes.

Down in steerage, there was little chance of survival.

Water rushed in as the huge ship beat against the huge bleached granite boulders. For the men down in the boiler room, it was probably similar. There was no time to escape and the dark made it impossible to find companionways and ladders and doors. A few men in steerage managed to escape out through portholes. They even managed to shove out a small boy who fit through the little round window perfectly. He would be the only child to escape the wreck.

Some passengers managed to make it on deck. Though the officers tried to launch lifeboats, conditions just weren’t right. The best the survivors on deck could do?  Crawl up in the rigging—the masts were a lifeline for many of the crew and passengers.

Brave crew took a rope attached to the ship and attempted to swim through the crashing waves to a nearby rock. It was this manoeuvre that alerted the few residents of Terence Bay their fishing boats were needed to pluck survivors from the rocks, ship, and shore. It also included Reverend William Ancient, who emerged as the hero of the whole fiasco because he took a boat out in seas that would have frightened the bravest seamen.

Captain Williams, who managed to fight off hypothermia and drowning despite still being crippled from previous injuries, sent a few survivors to Halifax and began tallying how many people survived what would be touted as the worst marine disaster ever.

Nearly 600 people died on the shore of Terence Bay on April Fools Day, 1873.  No fool, no joke.  Even worse, only one child survived, and not a single woman.

Sorry Rose.  Looks like Leo would’ve survived this shipwreck.

The worst of the whole scene: it happened just off shore, within sight of land. However it was a frigid April night and the waves smashing into the bleached boulders were high and unforgiving.

Over the weekend, the scene was much different.

A memorial erected by the Ismays of Titanic fame, 3 years after the Titanic sank.

It was hot. Instead of dripping with ice water, I was dripping with sweat.

Waves lapped at the rocks. A few boats zipped through the waters of Terence Bay. And there was a slight haze over the cliffs opposite the Anglican church cemetery where approximately 277 bodies are interred into a mass grave. So many people died, and there is so little soil on the surrounding land, they had to simply pile the bodies into one grave. Of course, this was before easy transportation to Halifax, and before embalming and cremation. And sadly, for many of the steerage passengers, entire families were lost—families leaving industrial parts of Europe for a fresh start in the New World. There was no one to claim the bodies.

I am sorry to say I was not moved to tears at the site. I was hoping to. Clearly, I need to go in April. Summertime, it is just too darn cheerful, with park benches beckoning you to sit. And of course, summer time is different, especially as the sinking sun lays over the green grass and bushy bushes that grow along the coast.

The S.S. Atlantic Memorial Park is also a distance from the actual wreck. To get to where the Atlantic lies today, you have to take a boat; it is just off a rocky island. And you cannot even see the island because private property owners have so kindly posted no trespassing signs.

The mass grave today.

And Terence Bay must be quite different from the small fishing community the Atlantic survivors discovered when dawn broke April 1st. It is still a small fishing community. However, it is close to Peggy’s Cove and Halifax, and there are many cabins and cottages surrounded by barbecues and Adirondack chairs. Everyone watches you drive down the winding road, but there are also the sounds of loud music coming from radios.

But finger the rusting shanks of what I assume to be the Atlantic’s anchor—well, one of them—and you begin to feel close to the past.

Looking out to the ocean dotted with humpback boulders, you realize this is the same scene many of the doomed and survivors saw that morning.

Realizing that almost 300 skeletons are resting beyond a rope barricade, you do get a feeling. Add to that the new rocks that have been added to keep the grave from washing away, and it’s downright chilling—all of this because of overconfidence in new technology and assumptions there would be some warning before the ship grounded and sank.

Those who condemn history are doomed to repeat it.

One of the ship's anchors

White Star vanquished the Atlantic to Board of Trade documents and a monument.

Yet the monument was not placed in Terence Bay in 1873—or even by 1880.

Three years after an overconfident crew sent an unsinkable ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. And the same year that an overconfident company allowed an unarmed passenger ship into waters patrolled by U-boats (if that’s too obscure, I mean the Lusitania, which rivalled the Titanic in terms of lives lost.)

Some day make a trip to Terence Bay. It’s close to Prospect. Visit the site. Learn of our Titanic and how the lives of 600 people were not enough to make transatlantic companies and their officers address safety issues like travelling too fast and not carrying enough lifeboats (not that lifeboats could have been launched in the Atlantic’s case.)

Unfortunately, the Atlantic’s victims were only among the first losses of the transatlantic steamships. There would be many more including the Titanic, the Lusitania—and the huge liners that were sunk during the Second World War like the Wilhelm Gustloff, which went to the bottom of the ocean with almost 10,000 lives.

Then tell me why people are afraid to fly.

It's a beautiful, but sad, spot.
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Miss Julie says:

    This has been reposted from August because I couldn’t fix the wonky formatting… ugh.

    1. harpmando says:

      Thank you hodge podge,

      I really enjoyed reading that. One thing though, how do you think the reverend got them to row out to the ship in such a sea? It must of seemed like madness. I have a few ideas based on faith and skullduggery. Does the Church still exist today? Do they still remember the day?

      all the best

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