Maritime History Blog
Occasional musings about US maritime history and topics relating to Captain Asa Eldridge
Much of my research for The Lost Hero of Cape Cod was performed using online databases of historical newspapers, in particular those published between 1815 and 1860. For US newspapers, my primary source was Newspapers.com, which has excellent coverage of the major papers in most towns and cities that were sizeable during the relevant period. Recently, however, I became aware of the extensive collection available on another website whose name does not immediately signify that it carries historical newspapers: GenealogyBank.com. This site excels in its coverage of papers that are (relatively) obscure, more locally focused, and/or more targeted to specialist audiences–such as the New-York American for the Country, the Shipping and Commercial List and New-York Current, the Charleston Courier, the Commercial Advertiser, the Boston Weekly Messenger and the Baltimore Pilot and Transcript. I mention these publications in particular because from editions published in 1839 and 1840, I was able to piece together a dramatic episode in Asa Eldridge’s career that had escaped my previous research, and which is therefore not reported in the The Lost Hero of Cape Cod.
This episode fills a gap in the narrative that careful readers of the book may have noticed, between Eldridge’s final voyage to India in 1839 on the Timore and his first voyage to Liverpool on the Colombo in April 1841. During this period, it turns out, Eldridge had command of a 643-ton ship called the Norway, built in Medford in 1839. The dramatic episode occurred late in 1840, as she returned from her second voyage to Europe. The first had been uneventful, following a typical itinerary from Boston to Mobile and New Orleans to pick up cotton, then across the Atlantic to Liverpool, and from there back to New Orleans – in all likelihood carrying salt and/or manufactured goods. For her second voyage just a couple of weeks later the Norway headed for France rather than England, sailing to the Normandy port of Havre (nowadays known as Le Havre) via Havana. It was on the return run to New Orleans that disaster struck. On November 5, thirty-three days out from Havre and under full sail, the Norway ran right into Cay Sal Bank, a coral reef about thirty miles north of Cuba. She was badly damaged below the waterline, and after a day sitting on the reef had twelve feet of water in her hold. Captain Eldridge had no choice but to abandon ship. Fortunately the Norway’s plight had been noticed by passing vessels, and everyone aboard was saved. She had 82 passengers in total, 22 in cabin class (including the former Governor of Louisiana and his family) and 60 in steerage. The cabin passengers were retrieved by the brig Henry Lee from New York and taken to Apalachicola, while those in steerage ended up in Key West, courtesy of the brig Hallowell from Bath. Captain Eldridge and his crew stayed on board until a salvage vessel arrived, shortly after the passengers had been picked up. Any hopes the salvagers had of making a big profit from a valuable cargo were quickly dashed: the fancy French furniture and silk the Norway had been carrying were ruined. But the cargo did at least include wine and jewelry that could be salvaged.
New Orleans in 1842 (from a print in the collection of the Library of Congress)
This previously forgotten episode in Asa Eldridge’s career bears some striking similarities to the disaster that brought his career to an end over fifteen years later. In this case, the Norway was under full sail when she hit the reef, going too quickly for Eldridge to take evasive action. And when the Pacific was lost in 1856, she was (according to the most common version of events) proceeding at full steam when she hit an ice floe in the Atlantic, with Eldridge again having insufficient time to take evasive action. In both cases, therefore, Eldridge could be accused of proceeding at a speed that was excessive in view of local conditions. But there were mitigating circumstances. The Norway struck the reef at one o’clock in the morning. at which time the darkness would have made it difficult to see very far ahead; if the weather had been cloudy the previous day and evening, Eldridge would not have been able to take the sextant readings needed to calculate his position accurately, and so might not have known how close he was to the reef. And in the case of the Pacific, other ships crossing the Atlantic in the same month reported ice fields much further south than usual; Eldridge might simply have been steaming along on his normal route with no expectation of encountering ice, and could easily have run into it with no warning—especially at night.
What both of these episodes illustrate is the challenge that captains of merchantmen constantly faced in balancing risk and safety. Quicker voyages meant earlier delivery of cargoes and profits, and earlier availability for additional money-making runs. But they also meant taking risks, pushing vessels hard even when conditions were hazardous. And as the losses of the Norway and (especially) the Pacific showed, this could all too easily lead to calamity.
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.
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.
On this day in 1833, Asa Eldridge sailed out of Calcutta as captain of the ship America, bound for New York. He was returning to the US on the second leg of a round-trip whose outbound leg had been a major success, the first of two record-breaking voyages he made during his career. In late June he had arrived in Calcutta eighty-nine days after leaving Boston, a record time that would not be bettered for two decades—and then only by one of the new generation of clipper ships, which were much larger than the America and built expressly for speed. Eldridge’s record was all the more striking because of his relative youth; he was only twenty-three at the time, young for an ocean-going shipmaster.
Just as the ship that eventually beat his time from Boston to Calcutta was a clipper, so too was the vessel that carried Eldridge to his next record. In January 1854, he took the Red Jacket from New York to Liverpool in thirteen days, one hour and twenty-five minutes, which is still the fastest-ever crossing of the Atlantic by a sailing ship. Remarkably, the Red Jacket was on her maiden voyage with a pick-up crew recruited at the last minute on the wharves of South Street in Manhattan. Eldridge therefore had no prior experience of either the ship or the crew he was commanding, but was still able to set a record that has never been beaten.
Eldridge’s record-breaking voyages were also notable for the routes on which he made them. Trade with India and England was crucial to the development of the young United States as an independent trading nation in the decades following the War of 1812. The transatlantic route between New York and Liverpool was particularly important, in that era probably the busiest and most important shipping route in the world. The epic struggle between the US and Britain for commercial supremacy on this route is a fascinating tale of innovation in business and technology, intervention by governments, and the eventual capitulation of one side—issues that are explored in detail in The Lost Hero of Cape Cod.
Vincent Miles, author of The Lost Hero of Cape Cod, will give a talk about the book at 2 pm on Sunday August 21, 2016 at the South Yarmouth Library, 312 Old Main Street, S. Yarmouth, MA 02664. Miles has been invited by the South Yarmouth Library Association to discuss his experiences writing the book and getting it published. Accordingly, the talk will be entitled “Finding Asa: Reconstructing the Career of Cape Cod’s Greatest Shipmaster, Asa Eldridge.”
Asa Eldridge really was an extraordinary character. To this day, for example, he still holds the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic by a sailing ship, which he established in January 1854 on the clipper ship Red Jacket. Attendees familiar with Yarmouth will recognize that one of the town’s most prominent resorts is named after this ship, commemorating Eldridge’s feat.
Come to the event on August 21 to learn much more about this and other episodes in Eldridge’s fascinating career, including the Titanic-like disaster that caused him to become The Lost Hero.
The author will also be signing books at the event.
For more information see http://www.yarmouth.ma.us/index.aspx?nid=897.
On August 1, 1840, the steamship Britannia sailed out of Boston for Liverpool. This was the return leg of her maiden voyage, which had commenced with her outbound departure from the English port on July 4. Her voyage marked the inauguration of transatlantic service by the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company. If that formal name doesn’t sound familiar, the company’s informal popular name almost certainly will: the Cunard Line, so called after its founder, Samuel Cunard.
Cunard’s enterprise was by no means the first to offer steamship service across the Atlantic; three other British companies had beaten his to that distinction—although two of them went out of business very quickly, and the third lasted less than a decade. The Cunard Line, in contrast, is still in business today, since 1998 as part of Carnival Corporation & plc.
One key factor in the Line’s initial survival was the substantial payments it received from the British government for carrying mail across the Atlantic, which gave it a significant financial advantage over early British rivals. The company was in fact founded after winning that mail contract in response to a request for proposals by the UK Admiralty, which was anxious to foster the development of a British steamship line that could challenge the dominant position in transatlantic trade that America’s sailing packets had established over the previous two decades. The near-monopoly enjoyed by US shipping lines in carrying passengers, goods and mail across the Atlantic was seen as a potential strategic threat.
For its part, the US was slow to respond to this initiative by the British. After glorying in the superiority of their sailing packets for over twenty years, most US shipowners saw little threat from the arrival of noisy and smoky steamships on the Atlantic, referring to them scornfully as “tea kettles.” And when one of their number with greater vision, Edward Knight Collins, sought a mail contract from Congress so he could start a steamship line to compete with Cunard on an equal footing, he had to wait until 1847 to get one. At that point he still had to sell off his sailing packets and raise additional capital before he could start building his steamships, and it was not until 1850 that his first of these ships, the Atlantic, crossed the ocean of the same name.
For the next five years the “Collins Line” more than held its own against the Cunard Line on the crucial route between New York and Liverpool. But as detailed in The Lost Hero of Cape Cod, it did so at enormous cost both financially and in terms of human lives, and by 1858 had gone out of business—leaving the Cunard Line and other British and European companies to dominate Atlantic trade for much of the next century.