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The Unlucky Collins Line
An enterprising Yankee briefy ruled Atlantic sea lanes but a chain of disasters dogged his great steam packets
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
At this time, Atlantic shipping was virtually an American monopoly, and the United States merchant marine held a position in 1836 which it never reached again, even in the greatest days of the Yankee clippers. This pre-eminence dated back to 1818 when four New York shipowners pooled resources and began regular service to Liverpool in what became the famous Black Ball Line. Their decision to operate on a “frequent and regular” schedule, with ships sailing on fixed dates, is standard practice today; but in 1818 it was considered revolutionary folly. Ships sailed when they had a full cargo—not before; and if passengers, freight, and mail had to wait days or weeks beyond the estimated departure date, that was somebody else’s concern. Old-timers shook their heads knowingly when the first packets sailed half empty. But before long the idea took hold, and a new era in maritime history began when other New York shipowners were forced to follow the pioneer packet line’s lead. When Collins entered the transatlantic service there were already three well-established New York-Liverpool lines, two to London, three to Le Havre, and one Philadelphia-Liverpool—all American-owned and operated.
For some reason no foreign company tried the successful packet line idea, although England found herself in the embarrassing predicament of having her important cotton-weaving industry depend largely on American shipping. New York was the headquarters of the American cotton market, and whether the South liked it or not (and it did not), most cotton for British and French mills passed through New York, leaving a fat slice of the profits there. With Collins’ ships carrying more than their share of cotton—sometimes from New Orleans direct to Liverpool, more often from New Orleans to New York to Liverpool—his new venture was almost certain to prosper. Prosper it did, but E. K. Collins was no man to settle for second place.
His successful formula of bigger and better ships, with greater attention to what the passengers wanted, was put to work in three ships he now built as the Shakspeare’s running mates. Other packet lines named their ships haphazardly after cities, countries, merchants, or members of the owners’ families. Collins, a showman at heart, named his new vessels the Garrick, Sheridan, and Siddons. Likenesses of the famous originals in figureheads and interior decoration gave them the glamour of the classic stage and earned them a catchy title—the “Dramatic Line.” The owner seemed to be able to guess what the public wanted before people realized they wanted it—soda fountains, for instance; cabin quarters located on the better-ventilated upper deck; roomier and airier steerage. And where Collins’ popular innovations led, other lines had to follow, while his motto of “bigger and better” soon made him the leading figure in Atlantic shipping.
Probably his most important contribution—one which the clipper ship authority Carl Cutler calls “the most noteworthy innovation which had yet been developed in American naval architecture”—was the adoption of the long, flat floor of the New Orleans packet, instead of the sharp V-bottom. Brown & Bell, who built the Dramatic vessels, advised against it. Old masters warned they would “never make a passage to the west’ard.” But Collins was sure of his design.
In 1838 he added the 1,030-ton Roscius (named for the celebrated Roman actor) to the line. Much the largest and most luxurious ship yet built, the Roscius cost over half again as much as her nearest competitor. Condemned by skeptics as “Collins’ Folly,” she carried almost as much canvas as the great clippers of later years, with a mainmast nearly as tall. The Roscius was, in fact, a direct antecedent of the unsurpassed clipper ships which were to be the most beautiful vessels America ever built, and like Collins’ other packets amply vindicated his faith in their design. Not only could they carry far more cargo than the older packets, but Commodore Isaac Hull of the frigate Ohio declared flatly that either the Siddons or the Roscius would outsail any vessel in the United States Navy.
Capitalizing on his foresight with his visual showmanship, Collins chose sailing dates to coincide with those of the Black Ball, oldest and most famous packet line, then encouraged the betting on the winner. The Black Ball had eight ships to his four, offering two monthly sailings to his one; but some of the Black Bailers were getting on in years and slow, and the Dramatic Line finished its second year with the best average-passage record for the Liverpool packets. Even the luck of the sea played into his hands, adding to the fame of ships and masters when they saved an unusual number of survivors from other ships in distress. Collins’ shipmasters held English and American decorations for their rescue work, and New York editors began to realize that the E. K. Collins office on South Street was an excellent source of shipping news. Collins had a great flair for public relations, always invited the press to the grand dinners with which he celebrated a ship launching or a maiden voyage, and he was on good terms with all of them, including that notoriously prickly character, James Gordon Bennett of the Herald.