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The Tragedy of the Steamship Atlantic

An overview of the tragic shipwreck of the steamship Atlantic that was destroyed on the rocks of Fisher's Island in 1846.

Just fall in. Sitting on the edge of the boat, breathing through a regulator and pulling the mask down, you realize that all that is left is to fall in. You move to the side of the boat and you splash into the green and blue of Fisher’s Island Sound.

North Hill on Fisher's Island is a deceptive place. It is the north westerly exposure to the island and while it looks unassuming on a calm sunny day in July, this location was the scene of one of the worst early maritime disasters in New England. It was the site where the Steamship Atlantic was dashed upon the rocks Thanksgiving Day in 1846, killing forty-two people.

It isn't a deep dive. Drifting down to thirty feet, the bottom is granular sand and visibility is ten to fifteen feet. As you head to the island, the rocks are exposed in lines that look like battlements for a fortress. The rocks are more numerous as you move into the shore, the sand washed and pulled back into the deeper water. Lobsters dart into their holes and blackfish can be heard cracking mussel shells in their teeth. Between the rocks and the sand openings, I always look for something that would resemble wreckage. For the most part, it is gone. Ground up in the rocks, smashed and worn down for more than one hundred and sixty-six years. Hurricanes and storms have long finished off a lot of the wreckage and if you find wooden bits and pieces, you wonder if it isn't a recent relic. It’s possible that larger pieces of the wreckage are covered in the sand, which drift and moves from year to year.

The Atlantic was built as a luxury vessel by the a business savvy Cornelius Vanderbilt who had cut his teeth with sail and steam enterprises in New York City, running ferries and steamships from New Jersey to Providence. The purpose was to cut into the railroad monopolies, and give passengers a more elegant and civilized way to travel. In E. J. Renehan’s biography Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, we meet a man who was always trying to hone the business of traveling from Boston to Maryland. He constantly proved to be a capable and sometimes heroic captain on the water, saving property and lives without a second thought to his own safety.

By 1835, Boston was connected by rail to Providence. Vanderbilt knew that moving passengers to Providence by way of the Long Island Sound would be the best route to Boston. It is described in the book that a trip from Manhattan to Providence would cost a steamship 30 to 40 cords of wood. The pier in Providence was loaded with wood to stoke those great engines. On board his vessels, class lines were blurred for “there were no varying class of tickets: cobbler and banker sat down at the same table although the banker was likely seated closer to the commander of the vessel.” They built the massive steamship Lexington for these trips, weighing 488 tons with paddle wheels twenty three feet high. Running at 20 miles an hour, they could make New York to Providence in twelve hours.

Vanderbilt continued to compete with the rail travel along the coast using smaller ships from New York to Bridgeport. He was building giant steamships to make the longer runs. As time went on, the average traveller was getting off in Stonington rather than Providence to transfer to rail. With that came a new line, that gave Vanderbilt an opening.

The Norwich & Worcester Railroad opened up a different route that was quicker and more efficient for travelers heading from New York to Boston. By 1840, the train would connect just south of Norwich at Allyn’s Point. The route was a success and the Stonington and Providence stops were scaled back. With the help of his brother, the Vanderbilt’s created the Norwich & New London Steamship Company. They laid the keel for the crown jewel of their company in November 1945, creating the frame for what would be the steamship Atlantic. It would cost the company $150,000 to get the ship into operations. She was completed in May of 1846.

According to the 1895 directory American Steam Vessels, the Atlantic was ‘one of the largest and finest steamboats that had ever been constructed for Long Island Sound. Her commodious saloons and staterooms, the elegance of her fittings and appointments, the finish of her boilers and engine, and speed placed her in the front ranks of Sound boats of her day.” It is even suggested that she was the first boat equipped with gas lighting fixtures. The Atlantic began regular trips between New York City and Norwich on August 18, 1846. In three months, the wreck of the Atlantic becomes a footnote to Vanderbilt’s legacy, but becomes a significant and mythical event to our local history.

The Atlantic left the dock just after midnight on the early morning of Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1846. By the time she was making headway down the Thames River, the weather was turning nasty with a harsh northwesterly wind kicking up faster and faster. The Atlantic made it to the mouth of the river and turned to the west. As the great steamer churned in the howling wind, it drew west toward Bartlett’s Reef lightship. Near the reef, there was an explosion on the ship, blowing the boiler and leaving the ship without power. While they tried to maneuver into to the wind and keep the waves from hitting them broadside, the steerage lines broke and the giant ship was floundering.

The order was given to drop anchors, but the storm was so fierce that they continued moving in to the southeast. Over the next few hours, the Atlantic continued to move across the sound in slow terrifying increments until she was at the shore of Fisher’s Island. The article from The Day Newspaper commemorating the disaster in November of 1891 described, “As she careened toward the shore, by the action of the waves those of her passengers and crew who were over and off the boat at the same time, were mostly saved; while those who clung to the boat in her severe tumbling’s, were chiefly lost.”

The ship was wrecked in the pounding waves that seemed to have crushed and rolled the ship to splinters. A portion of the main shipworks remained, and the infamous bell tolled with the rocking of the vicious sea. That bell would forever be connected with the disaster that took at least forty two lives. The Day article gives the gruesome reports that “Some of the victims were found with limbs gone, caused by breaking timbers of the boat. Arms and legs were picked up on the shores that had been appendages of persons not recognizable. When the boat first struck the shore, so powerful was the shock, one of the great boilers broke from its fastenings and went high and dry beyond the sea; and strange as it may seem, a little boy was found in it alive.” When the weather gave way, ships came to the scene of the grisly wreck and brought bodies and survivors alike back to the landing.

The wreck of the Atlantic stood as one of the darkest marine disaster to date with a significant loss of life. Soon, stories (like the one mentioned above) began to circulate. These stories became part of the town and the local myth and folklore. A day after the wreck, Daniel Webster wrote a letter that gave some account of the event and the loss of the captain. He explains in his letter, “Twenty-two bodies were brought up here this P.M. by the Mohegan [another ship], which got to the wreck this morning. There were three Ladies on board, passengers, who were all lost, as were the three-chamber maids. Capt. Duston was drowned…. No blame seems to be imputed to the Captain. The fault is thought to have been in the machinery.” This became a notable incident in sermons and speech that occurred that year. Eventually, Francis Caulkins wrote a stunning poem about the tragedy, further lodging the loss into the hearts and minds of the people of the community. She was a significant conservator of our past.

As the bubbles move up to the surface, and the placid sea comes to view, diving this site is more than just an exploration. It is a quiet and important reflection of what happened here. Climbing up into the boat and taking off my gear, I've immersed myself in a hallowed place. Diving offers reverence to history, where you float and drift like shadows over the rocks and sand that has shaped who we are. From the boat you can see across to the New London Harbor light, and see Bartlett’s Reef. The whole scene unfolds around you. It is tragic, reverential - and ours.

 

Works Cited

The Day Newspaper, Thursday, November 19, 1891. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1915&dat=18911118&id=KPkgAAAAIBAJ&sjid=WHQFAAAAIBAJ&pg=3765,5406680

Edward, Everett. Webster, Daniel. Volume 16 of The Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster. Little, Brown. 1903. From University of Michigan. Digitized September 19, 2008. http://books.google.com/ebooks/app#reader/5Cx3AAAAMAAJ/GBS.PA467

New London County Historical Society. Records and Papers of the New London County Historical Society. January 1890. Original from the University of Michigan. Digitized August 16, 2005.

Palmer, H. R. Fisher’s Island: a former bit of New England. The New England Magazine, Volume 28. Making of America Project. New England Magazine Company, 1903. Indiana University.  Digitized September 2009.

Renehan, Edward J. Commodore : The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Basic Books. 2009.

Smith, R. The Friend:  Religious and Literary Journal. Harvard University. 1847. Digitized August 2008. p.118.

 

Interactive History: In researching this topic and the information that is contained in this article, I also wanted to make the article interactive. With this in mind, I thought of adding the poem by Francis Caulkins but it is available via the link on Google Books. Many of the sources that are listed are available. If this is something that you are interesting in digging into, check these books out and read more about our history. I also found some interesting things on how and why steam engines fail and why boilers were failing. I spent an hour reading an engineering article from 1860 about this topic, and while it didn't make it to the article, it was very interesting. My hope with interactive history articles is to connect the history to the readers and let them explore. The connective nature of research is exciting and fun. You can get lost finding your way through history. - Be well - Ron Samul 

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