The Unlucky Collins Line

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By 1838 anyone even remotely aware of maritime affairs had heard of E. K. Collins. Skillfully combining a sharp Yankee business sense with showmanship, an understanding of public taste with a gambler’s willingness to back up hunches, he and the Dramatic Line were riding the crest. But that year, the same that the Roscius began operating, something happened that changed forever the Dramatic Line, the future of E. K. Collins, and the entire course of maritime history. On April 23 the little British ship Sirius came in sight off Sandy Hook, seventeen days out of Cork—the first vessel to make the crossing entirely by steam power. The city went wild with excitement and curiosity—but there was more to come. A New York paper went on with the account:

… suddenly there was seen over Governor’s Island, a dense black cloud of smoke, spreading itself upwards, and betokening another arrival. On it came with great rapidity, and about 3 o’clock its cause was made fully manifest to the multitudes. It was the steamship Great Western …. This immense moving mass was propelled at a rapid rate through the waters of the Bay; she passed swiftly and gracefully around the Sirius , exchanging salutes with her, and then proceeded to her … anchorage in the East River. If the public mind was stimulated by the arrival of the Sirius , it became intoxicated with delight upon view of the superb Great Western.

Fifteen days from Bristol, the Great Western had just completed the shortest passage that had ever been made.

Most of the packet owners belittled the steamers and went ahead with plans to add new and larger sailing ships to their lines; but Collins is quoted as saying, ”There is no longer chance for enterprise with sails; it is steam that must win the day.” He abandoned plans to double the size of his fleet and built no more sailing ships after the Roscius.

From the beginning of time until that day in April, 1838, the elements had ruled the earth, and man’s struggle against them had been an unequal one. True, there had been earlier signs that the days of sail were numbered: the pioneer American steamship Savannah used her engines during part of a historic European passage in 1819; and by 1825 nearly half of the river traffic was carried in steamboats. But from this moment on, the writing was clear and indelible—and E. K. Collins made his plans accordingly.

For a time the sailing packets held their own. The early steamers were noisy, sooty, smelly, and subject to engine trouble, and a great many passengers refused to have anything to do with them. And while the steamers were laid up in winter months for fear of damaging their machinery, the packets kept right on sailing. Then, in 1840, Samuel Cunard started a line of steamers between Liverpool and Boston, touching at Halifax, supported by a British Post Office subsidy of £60,000 a year. The Cunard ships gave regular service, even in winter, and although packet men claimed that people would not go to Boston to take a steamer, a great many were doing so. New York papers, used to getting European news from New York steamers and the fast packets, soon found themselves receiving most of it via Boston. They didn’t like it and began to agitate for a subsidized American transatlantic steamship line—from New York, naturally. The leading candidate for manager of the line was Edward Knight Collins.

Resistance was bitter, not only from dyed-in-the-wool sailing men but also from an economy-minded Post Office that cared little for speed and stood four-square in favor of “the free winds of heaven.” One steam disaster after another dampened public confidence; the steamship subsidy was quite a while a-borning. When it came, the first American ocean mail contract was given, not to Collins, but to one Edward Mills of New York, for a line to Bremen and Le Havre. The first ship to sail, in June, 1847, was a complete disappointment. Stung by this failure and spurred on by news that Cunard planned to start a Liverpool-New York line in 1848, with a greatly increased Royal Mail subsidy, the Post Office finally awarded Collins a contract. He disposed of all his packet line interests in the fall of 1847, surveyed his competition, and characteristically decided to beat it with something “bigger and better.”