The Atlantic Stakes

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When I was a child, the most magical day of the year for me was the one—usually a week or two after New Year’s—when my grandparents would leave on their annual trip to someplace warm. My brother and I got a day off from school, and a hired car took everyone to the piers that then lined the West Side of Manhattan for several miles. There we would board a passenger ship bound for the Mediterranean, South Africa, Hong Kong, or some other place as distant from New York as it was exotic to my young mind.

There would be a small party in my grandparents’ cabin; my grandfather would take us around to inspect the ship, and I would wave to the people on the pier far below, pretending that I was going too. Then, inevitably, the loudspeakers would begin announcing departure, and visitors were asked to disembark. I obediently went along and stood on the pier watching fascinated while tugs pushed the great ship out of her dock and she set off down the Hudson River, headed for the ends of the earth.

I was perhaps too obedient a child, for I have often wondered what would have happened had I simply turned left when everyone else turned right, vanished in the crowd, and hidden out until the ship was past Sandy Hook and had dropped the pilot. To be sure, there would have been hell to pay when I finally got back to New York. But I seriously doubt that whatever the inevitable punishment, it could possibly have been too high a price to pay for such an adventure. But I never got to sail on a passenger ship out of New York Harbor, and by the time I was grown up, almost all were gone, unable to compete with the Boeing 707s that began flying in 1958. One of the most storied and romantic businesses in history simply vanished in less than a decade.

Curiously, the passenger-ship business had a precise beginning. Until 1818 passenger carrying had been nothing more than a supplement to cargo hauling, and ships left when they had full holds. But then a New York merchant named Isaac Wright decided to change things. Engaged in transatlantic trade that required frequent crossings, Wright hated having to wait, so he put up twenty-five thousand dollars—as did each of his four partners—to found the Black Ball Line. According to an early advertisement, it would operate a fleet of vessels “between New York and Liverpool, to sail from each place on a certain day in every month throughout the year.” The first ship, the James Monroe , left New York on January 5, 1818, right on schedule.

Equally curious, although the United States was present at both the creation and, as we shall see, the end of the passenger-ship business, it was perhaps the only major business of the industrial era that the United States not only did not dominate but, for most of the era, had virtually no role in at all. There was a brief exception to this, in the 1850s, and it involved a now nearly forgotten man, Edward Knight Collins. He would fail utterly in the business and pay a staggering personal price as well, but he would also profoundly affect it.

Though the first regularly scheduled passenger service was in sailing ships, steam quickly replaced sail. But, under steam, the passenger-ship business was seldom really profitable. For most of its existence it depended on the kindness of governments to stay viable. The names of British passenger liners, for instance, were usually preceded by the initials RMS, standing for Royal Mail Steamship (translation: big government subsidies hidden in mail contracts).

In 1840 Samuel Cunard, a Canadian, convinced the British government to award a mail contract to his passenger line, and Parliament agreed to pay him sixty thousand pounds a year—no small sum in the 1840s—provided the ships would be available for troop carrying when necessary. Cunard soon dominated the North Atlantic passenger business, but he conceived it to be one of delivering passengers to the other side of the ocean merely safely and reliably, not comfortably and quickly.

One of his earliest and by far most prominent passengers was not amused. When Charles Dickens first visited the United States in 1842, he traveled here on the Cunarder Britannia and said of his bunk that “nothing smaller for sleeping in was ever made, except coffins.”

It was in Cunard’s Spartan accommodations and pedestrian food that Collins thought he saw opportunity. He had been born of Cape Cod seafaring stock, and when his father retired as a ship captain, the two of them established regular service between New York, New Orleans, and Veracruz. After his father died, Collins began operating sailing ships on the North Atlantic run.

When members of Congress began calling for American ships to haul American mail to Europe, and the Navy wanted ships that could be converted to troop transports when needed, Collins struck a deal with the federal government. He would build five steamships and run them twenty times a year between New York and Liverpool in exchange for an annual subsidy of $385,000.

The first Collins steamship to be ready, the Atlantic , was not a beautiful vessel—the early steamships seldom were—but she had features no Cunarder could match. Her cabins were steam-heated. She carried forty tons of ice in an ice room and had real bathrooms and even a barbershop. Equally important, her engines were far more powerful than anything in a Cunard steamer. She crossed the Atlantic on the return from her maiden voyage in the record time of ten days and sixteen hours.