The Unlucky Collins Line

It was a time when the sea called out to every Yankee lad its promise of adventure and reward. America was still the coastline and the rivers, and both then and thereafter seemed laden with an unmistakable scent of brisk salt air. Mr. Madison’s War of 1812 had ended, the seas beckoned to all who would sail them, and it began to look as if America would not only sail them—but might even inherit them.

New York was well on its way to becoming the nation’s busiest port. It was a city of ships, crowded with masts from every land, and the water front was lined with landsmen whom Herman Melville saw “posted like silent sentinels all around the town … thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging...  They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite.”

In January of 1824 a short young man named Edward Knight Collins arrived on this scene, to add “& Son” to the shipping firm of I. G. Collins. Then just past his twenty-first birthday, Edward Collins had gone to work as a shipping clerk when he was fifteen, sailed as a supercargo on a small vessel in the West Indies trade, and acquired in the Caribbean some firsthand experience of pirates and shipwrecks. Joining his father, Captain Israel Collins, who had given up the sea in 1818 to establish himself as a shipping merchant in New York, the junior partner showed, in his first year with the firm, evidence of the successful daring which was to characterize his spectacular career.

 

At the end of January, 1825, a ship brought news of a sharp rise in the price of cotton on the English market, and a group of cotton speculators immediately commissioned young Collins to go to Charleston, the nearest cotton port, as its agent. There was no fast overland route: America’s best coastal highway was the sea, and rival cotton buyers were taking the regular Charleston packet that same day. Against his father’s advice, and to the consternation of his backers, Collins chartered a fast New York pilot schooner, hand-picked a crew, and set out to race the packet. By keeping close to shore in his shallow-draft vessel he look advantage of land breezes and avoided the northbound current of the Gulf Stream. When the packet made port with his rivals and news of the price rise, Collins was on his way home with invoices for all the cotton on the Charleston market in his pocket.

Up to this time, Israel Collins had operated only small “transient traders” (which would be called tramp ships today), but in 1827 the firm started a line of packets on a regular schedule to Vera Cruz, Mexico’s chief Gulf Coast port. The line prospered in spite of unsettled political conditions in Mexico and the loss of several vessels on the poorly charted routes, and apparently Edward Collins deserved a good deal of the credit; for when his father died in 1831, the shareholders of an important New York-New Orleans packet line invited E. K. Collins to take over its management. Almost at once, Collins began providing larger vessels, better accommodations, food, and service than his rivals offered, and by hiring outstanding captains, he was able to deliver shorter average passages. His became the favorite of all the coastal packet lines, both for freight and passengers, and was particularly popular with the rich Louisiana planters making their annual visits to New York or the first leg of the long trip to Europe. The short man who always wore a tall hat was on his way to bigger things.

During the slack summer season in the southern trade, the New Orleans packets often made voyages to Liverpool, and in 1835 Collins sent his new ship Shakspeare (the favored spelling then) on this run. Larger than other transatlantic packets, the Shakspeare was more luxuriously appointed, and had as master Collins’ Uncle John. When he reached Liverpool, John Collins had the Shakspeare holystoned, painted, and polished, and opened her to public inspection for a week. She was immediately hailed as the finest packet ship ever seen at that port, and on the return trip carried the largest cargo yet brought to New York. On the strength of this successful venture E. K. Collins decided to enter the Atlantic service.