- Historic Sites
The Atlantic Stakes
The most glamorous business of the industrial era almost always lost money. But nobody paid a steeper price than Edward Knight Collins.
September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
The battle was quickly joined between Cunard and Collins, and it appeared at first that Collins might be ahead. The public (egged on by the newspapers) loved the idea of a contest for speed between the two countries, and Collins, flamboyant by nature, accommodated them. Although his ships had a designed speed of 11.75 knots, in 1852 the Arctic crossed from New York to Liverpool in only nine days, seventeen hours, and twelve minutes, for an average speed of 13.06 knots. Cunard not only couldn’t match that speed, but, concerned with safety, wouldn’t try.
In the first eleven months of 1852, according to the New York Herald , Collins carried 4,306 passengers across the Atlantic and Cunard only 2,916. There was just one big problem: Collins was losing money on every voyage. The still-primitive engines, being pushed to their limits, broke down frequently and were expensive to repair. All the amenities took up valuable space. In 1851 Collins lost an average of $16,928 per voyage.
Collins fell so hard that America turned its back on the North Atlantic passenger trade for decade after decade.
Collins went back to Congress and obtained an increase in his subsidy of $13,750 per voyage. He then had a great stroke of luck when in 1854 the British government, having declared war on Russia, commandeered Cunard’s ships to carry troops to the Crimea. Collins essentially had the North Atlantic to himself.
But tragedy soon struck. On September 27, 1854, the Arctic , running at high speed through dense fog (the idea, believe it or not, was that the higher the speed, the sooner the ship would be clear of the fog), collided with a small French vessel, the Vesta . The Vesta limped off to safety at St. John’s, Newfoundland; the Arctic foundered while still twenty miles from land. Only 86 of the 408 passengers and crew on board were rescued. Among the lost were Edward Collins’s wife and his two children.
The public, once obsessed with speed and comfort, now saw the virtues of safety, and Cunard noted that between 1840 and 1854 it carried a hundred thousand passengers on seven thousand voyages across the Atlantic, during which “not a single passenger had been lost nor a pound of baggage damaged.”
Less than two years after the Arctic disaster, another Collins liner, the Pacific , simply vanished in the mid-Atlantic. By this time Cunard was back in business, and Collins began to lose passengers in droves. When politics turned against him and his subsidy was cut by more than half, it was all over. He suspended operations in February 1858.
Both Collins and the United States turned their backs on the North Atlantic, which would be largely a British pond for the next few decades, and Collins died in 1878 in relative poverty. But his idea that passenger ships should be swift, luxurious, and innovative survived. Cunard’s first new ship after the Crimean War was the Persia , the largest and most powerful vessel yet built, designed expressly to recapture the speed record for Britain, which she did.
And every few years thereafter the Blue Riband, as the speed record was called, would change hands as some new steamer pounded her way across the Atlantic in a few hours’ less time. But no American vessel won the Blue Riband after Collins’s Arctic seized it in 1852 until, exactly a hundred years later, the SS United States took it from Cunard’s Queen Mary in 1952.
The United States still held it when, on November 15, 1969, it was announced that she would be suspended from service in the face of ever-mounting losses, and regular passenger-ship service across the North Atlantic ended. I hope it is some comfort to the shade of Edward Knight Collins to know that an American vessel will now hold the Blue Riband forever.