In January 1856 the USM Pacific, one of America’s first steam-powered ocean liners, left Liverpool for New York. She was never seen again. That winter was particularly brutal, with many ships reporting large fields of ice in the North Atlantic–including a British liner that left Liverpool three days after the Pacific and was delayed and damaged by ice on her way to New York. So when the Pacific failed to appear at her destination, the general conclusion was that she had suffered mortal damage after colliding with a large mass of ice.
The loss of the Pacific brought a tragic end to the stellar career of her captain, Asa Eldridge. Two years previously, sailing a clipper ship from New York to Liverpool, he had set a transatlantic speed record that still stands today. And before that he had been hand-picked by Cornelius Vanderbilt to skipper the tycoon’s private steam-yacht on a four-month cruise around Europe.
That prestigious assignment from Vanderbilt reflected Eldridge’s vast experience commanding a variety of vessels sailing to many different parts of the world. Intriguingly, the various phases of his career happened to coincide with key developments in maritime commerce that had profound effects on the international standing and growth of the US. And so in telling Eldridge’s story, The Lost Hero of Cape Cod also provides a guided tour to what many experts consider the “golden age” of US maritime history.