- Historic Sites
Pride Of The Seas
Nineteenth-century American courage and resourcefulness carried our merchant flag to the world's harbors and our nation to world prominence. The proud affection of a sea-conscious nation is reflected in our portfolio of ships by artists of three continents. Our essay, by C. Bradford Mitchell, former editor of Steamboat Bill and information director of the Merchant Marine Institute, charts the curious historic twists of public attitude and official policy that have alternately fostered and stunted our merchant navy.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
On September 27, 1854, in a Grand Banks fog, the Arctic crashed almost head-on into the little French screw steamer Vesta. It was David and Goliath. The Vesta’s iron hull and watertight bulkheads kept her afloat; the Arctic sank with more than 300 people, including most of Collins’ own family. Sixteen months later the Pacific, racing across the winter ocean to maintain her laurels against the new iron Cunarder Persia, disappeared with 186 on board. Since the Persia herself reported glancing off an iceberg, it seems clear that the Pacific met the same fate that later befell the Titanic.
Collins was broken, personally and financially. “Economy” and sectionalism in Congress killed the Atlantic mail subsidies, and the panic of 1857 removed any remote chance of the three lines’ surviving without them. Most of the subsidized liners themselves rendered useful service to the Union cause. But not for almost four decades was another major American passenger ship built for Atlantic service.
The half-century from 1865 to 1915 was one of. deepening eclipse for the merchant marine. When the Confederate cruisers struck their colors, the 2.5 million tons of 1861 had been reduced to 1.5 million. By 1900 this had been almost halved: 816,000 tons. The portion of U.S. trade carried in U.S. ships slumped from 65.2 per cent in 1861 to 27.7 per cent in 1865 to 9.3 per cent in 1900. Of course, these figures pertain to ships in foreign trade—the only ones with which this article is specifically concerned. Our coastal shipping in domestic trade, protected by law against foreign competition, expanded after 1861.
Unquestionably the foremost ocean shipping enterprise of this period under the American flag was the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. A product of the same body of mail-subsidy legislation that produced the Collins Line, it survived, in name, until 1925, becoming the longest-lived ocean carrier in our history.
Under the leadership of William H. Aspinwall, Pacific Mail contracted to carry the mails from California and Oregon to Panama, there connecting overland with ships of the similarly subsidized U.S. Mail Steamship Company, bound for New York. Its first vessel, the 1,000-ton paddler California, was en route from New York to the Pacific via the Straits of Magellan when news of the California gold discovery reached the East. Arriving at Panama on January 17, 1849, she found 726 forty-niners who had left New York weeks after her departure waiting to storm her 250 passenger accommodations!
With greatness thus thrust upon it by one of history’s more improbable coincidences, the Pacific Mail, originally a precarious lifeline to the nation’s recently acquired Pacific outposts, suddenly found itself a key instrument in the commercial growth of the far West. By 1867 it was ready to extend its services across the Pacific to Japan and China, a route for which it built the world’s largest wooden side-wheelers: the China, the Great Republic, the Japan, and the America. Though already as anachronistic as the clippers of the previous decade, these 4,000-tonners, with their distinctively American “walking beams” rocking majestically between rakish paddle boxes, established our flag on the Pacific in the very decades when it was being forgotten on the Atlantic.
Though Pacific Mail later fell on somewhat seamy times, becoming a financial pawn of rail interests and at one time the vortex of a subsidy scandal, it remained the foremost name in Pacific shipping until the First World War. It replaced its paddlers with the largest iron steamships yet built in this country, the City of Peking and the City of Tokio, and in 1903 and 1904 launched the 13,000-ton Manchuria and Mongolia, mammoths for their day, both of which long outlived the company itself.
By any standard, the Pacific Mail was a major shipping achievement. In contrast, our two most ambitious efforts in the Atlantic during the century’s last three decades were characteristically barren of lasting results, although they produced a handful of proud ships.