Month: November 2016

On November 26, 1846, two quite different ships were scheduled to depart from New York for Liverpool. One was the American sailing “packet” Roscius, the other the British steamship Great Western. Perhaps because that day was Thanksgiving*, the captain of the Roscius, Asa Eldridge, pushed back her departure until the following Monday. The British steamer, in contrast, left on time.

The Great Western, the first steamship ever to cross the Atlantic from England to the US
The Great Western, the first steamship ever to cross the Atlantic from England to the US

     Had both ships sailed on the 26th, the race to Liverpool that might have ensued would have been a great metaphor for the larger battle taking place on the Atlantic at that time: traditional sail versus new-fangled steam. The two contenders in this race would have been highly suitable representatives of their respective technologies. The Roscius was the flagship of the so-called Dramatic Line, and one of the largest and fastest of the transatlantic sailing packets. The Great Western had been the first steamship ever to cross the Atlantic from England to the US, and since that milestone event back in 1838 had made numerous scheduled crossings between the two countries.

     But even had it happened, the race would not have been much of a contest. The superiority of steam was already clear. On three separate occasions the Great Western had reduced the record time for the crossing from New York to Liverpool, most recently to 12 days 7 hours and 30 minutes; the best time ever recorded by a sailing packet was 15 days 16 hours.

     Ironically, though, the excellence of the Great Western was not enough to keep her namesake shipping line alive. The Great Western Steamship Company had incurred huge losses in connection with its second steamship, the Great Britain. So although the Great Western herself had been profitable, the voyage she commenced on Thanksgiving Day 1846 turned out to be her last under her original owners. Not long after her arrival in Liverpool, the Great Western Steamship Company folded.
     The Roscius, too, was about to undergo a change in ownership, but for very different reasons. Edward K. Collins, the owner of the Dramatic Line, had been the first major figure in the US shipping industry to recognize the inevitability that steam would displace sail. For several years he had been lobbying Congress for a contract to carry mail across the Atlantic in steamships, similar to the one awarded by the British government in 1839 that had enabled Samuel Cunard to start his shipping line. In 1847 Collins finally won the contract he was seeking. He immediately put the Dramatic Line up for sale, and by 1848 the Roscius and her sister ships were under new ownership. Collins could now concentrate completely on his steamship line. And by 1850, as noted in an earlier post and discussed in detail in The Lost Hero of Cape Cod, he was locked in a fierce struggle with Cunard for supremacy on the Atlantic.

 

*At that time, Thanksgiving was not yet celebrated on the same date in all states, but in 1846, New York and sixteen other states observed it on November 26.