Pride Of The Seas

But 1855 really ended this bright era. With almost sixty clippers still to be launched, the world already had little use for them. The market was glutted, and operators could no longer afford to throw away capacity for speed. The clipper, always an extravagant investment, could never again pay off its purchase price in one golden voyage, if at all. And Americans, with mounting concerns to the West and South, suddenly lost interest in one of the fanciest toys any people ever had to play with.

The clipper ship was going nowhere from the start—except, of course, to one of the brightest pages in the history of the sea. Perhaps this was enough. But the nagging question, unanswerable 110 years later, is where the American merchant marine might be today if half the genius, effort, and money the clipper absorbed had been channelled in the direction plainly indicated in 1819 by the Savannah’s crooked smokestack.

Ocean steam had not, however, been a completely dead issue. Also in that year the exposed New York-New Orleans route was successfully plied by the Robert Fulton, whose owners briefly contemplated sending her across the Atlantic. With the introduction of a practicable screw propeller, Boston shipowner R. B. Forbes in 1844 and 1845 fitted the device to three ships, one of which, the Massachusetts, made two undistinguished packet runs to Liverpool before going to the government for the Mexican War.

Meanwhile, since 1838 the British had introduced on the North Atlantic a score of steamships, including the subsidized Cunard fleet. Finally alarmed by this evident competitive threat, Congress early in 1845 authorized mail subsidies for American steamships.

Contracts were let to three companies: the Ocean Steam Navigation Company (the Bremen Line), the New York & Havre Steam Navigation Company, and the New York & Liverpool U.S. Mail Steamship Company (the Collins Line). The Bremen Line was first to get a ship in the water, its 1,640-ton man-of-war-built Washington, which sailed for Europe on June 1, 1847. She broke no records and was in fact soundly beaten by Cunard’s seven-year-old Britannia. The Havre Line did not get under way until mid-1850.

But the Collins Line was to be the heart of the experiment, the focus of popular attention, and the first casualty of that vacillation and fumbling which have marred our merchant marine policy ever since. However, when its first ship, the 2,845-ton Atlantic, departed on April 27, 1850, the mood was one of high optimism. To the crowd that cheered her down the bay, Collins was a popular name, identified with recordbreaking packet ships. Moreover, Collins was meeting Cunard on its own racecourse.

The Atlantic made good the challenge. On her first two voyages she twice lowered the westbound record, only to be beaten in September by her sister Pacific. Two years later the Baltic crossed in nine days and thirteen and a half hours and became the last American-flag liner to win the Atlantic “blue riband” for precisely one hundred years. Punch quipped that

… British agents, no way slow
Her merits to discover,
Have gone and bought her—just to tow
The Cunard’s packets over.

Like the clippers, Collins’ wooden side-wheelers were costly to build and costly to operate. Though they carried sails (and sometimes needed them, as when the Atlantic broke her shaft in mid-ocean and had to ride the wind back to England), they had an essentially “modern” look. They eschewed clipper bows and bowsprits; their straight stems and massive funnels spoke power as well as speed.

As record succeeded record and as passengers flocked to them, public enthusiasm reached a pitch almost equal to that generated by the extreme clippers. Speed and luxury—also the cardinal virtues of packet ships-came naturally to Collins, and, anyway, there was no question that they were what Congress and the public wanted for their money. So the steamers were driven as hard as the clippers, with high maintenance costs and low safety margins. Double catastrophe resulted.