Abandon Ship: 5 Maritime Disasters Lost to Time - Atlas Obscura
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Abandon Ship: 5 Maritime Disasters Lost to Time

Long before concrete, the highways of the globe were water, and the crafts that glided through them brought people and goods to new markets, new opportunities, and new worlds. The modern use of passenger and commercial ships swung open doors of transport, commerce, and tourism, but like any opportunity there was chance for catastrophe. Thus our maritime history is dotted with disasters and memorials to those lost, and now often forgotten. Here are five maritime disasters lost to time, and the obscure monuments preserving their memory. 

P.S. GENERAL SLOCUM

article-imageThe P.S. General Slocum Before the Disaster (via National Archives General Slocum Disaster)

Standing inside New York City’s Tompkins Square Park is a quiet nine-foot tall fountain in pink Tennessee marble carved with a relief of two children looking over the water, alongside an inscription reading “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.” Additional inscriptions of “In memory of those who lost their lives in the disaster to the steamer General Slocum June XVMCMIV” and “Dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies the year of our Lord MCMVI” reveal that the monument is a memorial to over 1,000 lives lost on the East River. What should have been an afternoon excursion instead became a tragedy that up until the attacks of September 11, 2001, was the deadliest peacetime disaster in American history.

On June 15, 1904, over 1,300 excited passengers boarded the excursion ferry boat P.S. General Slocum that was docked at a pier on Third Street for the purpose of spending the day on Long Island’s North Shore. The boat had been chartered by the St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in the East Village, and the passengers, all members of the tightly knit community of Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), were looking forward to spending the day on their annual picnic. As the boat departed the dock, flags waved in the breeze and bands played as everyone on board, including nearly 300 children under the age of ten, waved their goodbyes, and Captain William Van Schaick, a captain with a perfect safety record, began to guide the boat and its passengers into the East River.

This idyllic atmosphere was shattered as the boat approached 97th Street. Members of the crew noticed smoke rising from under the wooden deck and upon running below to investigate, found themselves confronted with what one crew member described as “a blaze that could not be conquered.” Prior to the excursion, the boat had been cleared by the fire inspector as being in good condition. However, no fire drills were ever conducted and the fire hoses and life jackets had fallen into disrepair. Van Schaick attempted to speed the boat to North Brother Island, hoping to beach the boat sideways, allowing passengers to escape, but the winds only fanned the flames.

Soon the entire boat was engulfed in an uncontrollable burn. Mothers and children flew into panic and hurled themselves overboard, with some becoming trapped in the massive paddle wheel, while others clustered together hoping for rescue, only to be overcome by the fire.

article-imageThe P.S. General Slocum burning (via Wikimedia)

North Brother Island was the site of Riverside Hospital, used for the care of typhoid among other diseases, and the staff watched as the burning vessel approached their shores and prepared their fire systems for the inevitable. Approximately 25 feet from the island, Van Schaick beached the Slocum on its side, and the staff of Riverside Hospital dashed into the water to save those still trapped on board.

However, the fire was too intense, and they were only able to throw debris into the water for people to cling on to. Within an hour, 150 bodies were laid across North Brother Island, and by time the horrific incident came to a close, 1,021 people were dead. The boat was carried away by the current before hitting land at Hunts Point in the Bronx, where it would remain for several weeks. The crew and safety precautions were scandalized in the press, and Van Schaick, escaping the boat blinded and burned, was sentenced to ten years in prison (he would be pardoned four years later).

article-imageVictims of the P.S. General Slocum disaster washing up onto the shores of North Brother Island (via Wikimedia)

article-imageThe wreck of the P.S. General Slocum (via Wikimedia)

The Slocum Memorial Fountain in Tompkins Square Park was dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies and installed in 1906. Now faded from exposure to the elements, this monument stands as a reminder of a greatly forgotten disaster that shook New York City, and devastated an entire population of German immigrants which would never recover from their loss. 

article-imageSlocum Memorial Fountain (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)

 

 S.S. EASTLAND

article-imageThe S.S. Eastland in the days before the disaster (via Detroit Publishing Company)

Standing along the Chicago River where West Wacker Drive and North LaSalle Street connect is a black plaque, approximately five feet tall, lost amid the bustling city around it. Although it does not announce itself to those passing by, the plaque tells those who stop of a horrific accident on the river that was big enough to be coined by some as “Chicago’s own Titanic,” and happened while the passenger ship S.S. Eastland was only feet from dry land.

On the morning of July 24, 1915, employees of the Western Electric Company of Hawthorne (present-day Cicero) were boarding the S.S. Eastland for a Lake Michigan cruise to Michigan City, Indiana, for their fifth annual employee picnic. The ship docked at the Clark Street Bridge that morning was modified in previous years, fitted with additional lifeboats and life rafts following changes in maritime law after the sinking of the Titanic, but maintained its slender design for speed. Its nickname was “The Greyhound of the Lakes.” 

The tendency of the Eastland to sway side-to-side was exacerbated by the additional safety gear, and large amount of passengers. At 7:30 am, the ship began to tilt before rolling over onto its port side into the river with 2,500 people on board. Passengers were thrown into the water or against walls that had suddenly become floors with all of the furniture and hundreds of other people crashing on top of them, almost guaranteeing that anyone on the port side of the ship would not survive. Medical examiners later concluded that suffocation was as much a cause of death as drowning.

Due to the tipping occurring so quickly, normal emergency steps had no chance. The ship’s captain, Captain Harry Pedersen, only had time to sound an alarm; the extra lifeboats, life rafts, and life jackets were never handed out or deployed. Within a few minutes, 844 people were killed in the S.S. Eastland disaster, 70% under the age of 25.

article-imageThe S.S. Eastland overturned in the Chicago River (photograph by Richard Arthur Norton)

article-imageThe S.S. Eastland being hauled upright (via Chicago Daily News)

It was not until 1990 that a marker representing the tragedy was privately placed at the site. However, it was reported stolen in 2000. In 2003, a new marker was placed on the northeast corner of Wacker Drive and LaSalle Street, overlooking the site of the disaster.

article-image
S.S. Eastland Memorial along the Chicago River (photograph by Victorgrigas/Wikimedia)

 

 S.S. SULTANA

article-imageThe S.S. Sultana a few days before the disaster (via Library of Congress)

The city of Knoxville, Tennessee, and the town of Marion, Arkansas, are approximately six hours from each other by car, but the two are connected through a disaster that would have shook the nation, had the nation not already become overwhelmed with more sensational tragedies.

By the time the country was waking up on the morning of April 27, 1865, the population was exhausted. On April 9, General Lee surrendered, ending the Civil War, but the celebrations were cut short when on April 14, President Lincoln was assassinated. The hunt for John Wilkes Booth over the following 12 days put the country into a frenzy, only ending on April 26, when Booth was found and killed in Virginia. Finally, it seemed Americans could take a breath.

Across the country, Union and Confederate prisoners were being released and looking for a way home, and the P.S.S. Sultana, a side-wheel riverboat, was contracted to bring them there.

When the ship arrived at Vicksburg on April 24, it was discovered that one of the boilers was badly leaking. Rather than switch out the boilers, Captain J.C. Mason ordered a metal patch be placed over the leak so they could depart earlier with the thousands of soldiers cramming themselves on the decks. The Sultana was only allowed a capacity of 376 people, but by the time it departed for Cairo, Illinois, it had an estimated 2,300 people on board.

At 2 am on the morning of April 27, two of the Sultana’s boilers exploded nine miles off the coast of Memphis, where people could see the pillar of fire and smoke that filled the sky. The destruction was immediate, with half of the ship instantly blown apart and POWs were scattered by the blast, with the lucky ones landing in the icy cold Mississippi River grasping for debris. What was not destroyed by the explosion was set on fire by the coals that had flown away from the detonation, and what remained of the ship was engulfed by flames as it drifted helplessly down the river before eventually striking an island, where it would sink shortly after.

article-imageS.S. Sultana in flames, as depicted by Harpers Weekly, May 20, 1865 (via Wikimedia)

Those able to escape the ship were not home free, and for hours after the explosion men were dragged out of the river while others were found clinging to life, hanging onto trees and rocks along the banks. Still others floated as far away as Memphis. The death toll was staggering for such a small vessel, and while there was no definite record as to how many former prisoners got onto the ship, it is reported that approximately 1,700 people perished on the 260-foot-long boat (the Titanic had a death toll of 1,517 on a ship nearly 900 feet in length).

Of those who survived the initial blast, 200 more would die from their injuries. While the wreck and loss of life was an absolute tragedy, it was all but forgotten due to timing. Newspapers only gave the incident small recognitions in their back pages. In a very short amount of time, the Civil War had ended, the President was murdered, and the day before the Sultana disaster, Lincoln’s assassin was killed. A report of around 1,000 people dying in a single incident was suddenly small.

Yet memorials have sprung up in five states. Knoxville, Tennessee, is home to the first memorial to the tragedy, standing in Mount Olive Baptist Church cemetery, dedicated on July 4, 1916 by survivors of the Sultana disaster. A large stone is carved with the image of the ship reading: “In Memory of the Men Who Were on the Sultana That Was Destroyed April 27th 1865, By Explosion on the Mississippi River Near Memphis Tennessee.”

article-imageThe first S.S. Sultana memorial located in Knoxville, Tennessee (photograph by Schekinov Alexey Victorovich)

One of the newer memorials was dedicated 84 years after the first, on April 1, 2000 by the Northeast Arkansas Civil War Heritage Committee and the Arkansas Daughters of the American Revolution. Gathering with descendants of Sultana survivors and those who helped in the rescue efforts, a plaque was placed in front of the Marion Arkansas City Hall describing the explosion as “the worst tragedy in American nautical history.” 

article-imageS.S. Sultana memorial located in Marion, Arkansas (photograph by DavGreg/Wikimedia)

 

 S.S. MONT-BLANC AND THE S.S. IMO

article-imageThe S.S. Imo after the explosion (via Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management)

Walking through the Fort Needham Memorial Park in Halifax, Nova Scotia, visitors suddenly find themselves in the presence of a large concrete structure with four giant bells. The view from the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower is radically different than it would have been on a late winter morning in 1917, when the S.S. Mont-Blanc and the S.S. Imo collided in the harbor, creating the biggest manmade explosion prior to the invention of the atomic bomb, and completely decimating the city of Halifax in the blink of an eye.

On December 6, 1917, the French cargo ship the S.S. Mont Blanc was traveling through the strait that connects the upper portion of the Halifax Harbor the Bedford Basin with a cargo of over 2,500 tons of munitions and explosive materials. At the same time, the S.S. Imo, a ship without cargo en route to New York City, was traveling in the harbor. The two ships collided at extremely low speeds at approximately 8:45 am. When the bow of the Imo hit the Mont-Blanc, sparks flew, igniting the explosives on board, causing a massive fire with munitions rocketing overhead.

article-imageSmoke rising over the collision of the S.S. Mont-Blanc & the S.S. Imo (via Library & Archives Canada)

While the captain of the Imo attempted to turn back into the harbor, the captain of the Mont-Blanc ordered everyone to abandon ship. The contents of the Mont-Blanc were known only to its crew, and on land people were gathering along the water and in the streets to look at the burning ship, unaware of the danger their entire city was facing, unable to understand warnings of the evacuating crew being spoken in French.

The S.S. Mont-Blanc headed toward Pier 6, setting it ablaze, and finally grounded itself at the foot of Richmond Street just before 9:05 am, when an explosion occurred in a blinding flash of white light. The shockwave was felt through Halifax, and travelled more than 1,500 meters per second with the heat at the center of the blast pushing a fireball of chemicals, debris, and shrapnel miles into the air, temporarily vaporizing the water around the ship. Soon after, a tidal wave surged through Halifax, bringing more devastation to the already nearly-leveled city. The S.S. Mont-Blanc itself was blasted into pieces, with twisted parts of it later found miles away, and the Imo was lifted by the tidal wave before being slammed into shore.

article-imageThe neighborhood of Richmond in Halifax after the explosion (via Wikimedia)

The toll on Halifax was disastrous, with approximately 1,600 people dead and another 9,000 sustaining injuries. The entire Richmond district was laid to total waste, with structures reduced to rubble and splintered wood, every window shattered, every door ripped from its hinges, and railcars and boats crushed. Recovery efforts came in from hundreds of sources, and six weeks after the explosion, the Halifax Relief Commission was formed to take on the monumental task of managing and re-building Halifax, with the North End reconstructed as the Hydrostones, Canada’s first public housing project.

article-imageOne example of a building damaged from the shockwave (via Wikimedia)

In 1966, the Halifax North Memorial Library was constructed with the first monument to the disaster — the Halifax Explosion Memorial Sculpture — placed in its entrance (the statue was later dismantled in 2004). Constructed in 1985, the Halifax Memorial Bell Tower stands today overlooking the site of the disaster, and is the site for an annual remembrance ceremony that takes place every year on December 6. It is the largest reminder in the Halifax region. Large pieces of the SS Mont-Blanc also stand in Dartmouth, and the clock tower of Halifax City Hall housing one clock on its north side, permanently set at 9:05 am to commemorate the minute that the city was nearly erased from the map.

article-imageThe Halifax Memorial Bell Tower (photograph by Jesse David Hollington)

 

R.M.S. EMPRESS OF IRELAND & THE S.S. SNORSTAD

article-imageThe R.M.S. Empress of Ireland 

Located on a coastal road near the St. Lawrence River in Pointe-au-Père in Rimouski, Quebec, Canada, is a tall stone structure inscribed with a grim tale. This mass grave and monument stand where Canada experienced one of its greatest peacetime maritime disasters.

On the morning of May 29, 1914, the R.M.S. Empress of Ireland was traveling to Liverpool, England, from Quebec City, a routine trip headed by the newly promoted Captain Henry George Kendall who would be making his first venture up the St. Lawrence River. The passengers of the ship were bid farewell to the sound of the Salvation Army Band, expecting to spend their stay on board in comfort. At 1:38 am, ship lights were spotted approximately six miles from the Empress, but due to an extremely thick fog visibility of the other ship proved difficult. At 1:55 am, the SS Snorstad came plowing out of the mist, slamming directly into the Empress at a 45 degree angle.

article-imageS.S. Storstad after the collision, with damages on its right side (via McMord Museum)

Kendall encouraged the Snorstad to move further into his ship, hoping it would create a sort of plug to buy some time, but the current of the river pulled the ships apart, leaving a massive hole that quickly filled the ship with water. Given the early morning hour, most passengers were asleep, and had no time to realize what was happening, let along scramble to the upper decks in hope of a lifeboat. Only 14 minutes after the collision, the Empress of Ireland sank beneath the river, taking the lives of 1,012 people with it, out of the 1,477 people who had boarded the previous day.

The wreck of the Empress is located only 130 feet below the surface, and shortly after the disaster crews began diving in search of bodies and valuables. In 1964, a team of Canadian divers recovered a brass bell. Due partially to the influx of divers, the site of the wreck was protected under the Cultural Property Act in 1999, and later the Register of Historic Sites of Canada. While there are still expeditions to the wreck, the dive has taken the lives of six more people since 2009.

The mass grave located at Pointe-au-Père was memorialized by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Several other reminders have been established in the region, with markers in the Mount Herman Cemetery in Quebec, a memorial in Saint Germain Cemetery in Rimouski, and a monument erected by the Salvation Army in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto where an annual memorial service is held on the anniversary of the disaster next to their statue reading “In Sacred Memory of 167 Officers and Soldiers of the Salvation Army Promoted to Glory From the Empress of Ireland at Daybreak, Friday May 29, 1914”.

article-imageThe memorial for the Empress of Ireland, located in Pointe-au-Père in Rimouski, Quebec, Canada (photograph by G. Bouchard)

article-imageMemorial to the Empress of Ireland disaster in the Mount Hermon Cemetery in Quebec City (photograph by Bouchecl/Wikimedia)


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