The Unlucky Collins Line


Collins took nearly three years to finance his line and design and build his ships—the Atlantic, Arctic, Baltic, and Pacific . Wooden side-wheelers of 2,856 tons, 282 feet long, they were bigger and more powerful than the terms of Collins’ contract required, and some 500 tons larger than the biggest Cunarders. No steamship of their size had ever been built in America or, with one exception, anywhere. That exception was the iron ship Great Britain, finished in 1845 by the man who later created the fabulous Great Eastern—Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the English genius who specialized in premature monsters. When the Great Britain proved unsuccessful in the transatlantic service, she was shifted to the Australian trade, leaving to Collins’ ships the honor of being the largest on the Atlantic. They were built in shipyards along the East River, and huge crowds turned out to witness the launchings. Cannon salutes boomed, bells rang, spectators kept up a “continued shout,” while Collins entertained distinguished guests—and the press.

Service started with the Atlantic on April 27, 1850. Her first eastbound passage was slowed by mechanical trouble, and she had to lay over in Liverpool for three weeks for repairs. While she was there, English shipping men took an uneasy look at her, remembering Collins’ past performances. There were critics, of course, who called the Atlantic ugly, severe, and stark-looking. Her masts were too short, her sail area too small, her funnel too heavy and short for their taste. Actually, Collins and his architects had broken sharply with tradition, evolving the prototype of the modern ocean liner, except for the auxiliary sails, the paddles, and the wooden hull. America’s rolling mills were still not capable of producing material for a metal ship of that size, and the screw propeller had not developed sufficiently to deliver the required speed.

Internally, there was certainly no starkness or severity. Whereas Cunard specified ships “plain and comfortable, not the least unnecessary expense for show,” Collins believed that ocean travelers liked fancy trimmings, and he provided them. The profuse decorations included state shields, stars, spread eagles, and a painting of Liberty trampling a feudal prince in the dust. There were marble-topped tables, mirrors, paintings, thick carpets, carved and upholstered furniture, and not a few startling innovations—automatic signals from bridge to engine room and from staterooms to stewards’ quarters, a French maître de cuisine, steam heat in the passenger areas, wide “wedding berths” for honeymooners, and a glorious barber shop with patent reclining chair. Today’s ocean voyagers, who enjoy almost every imaginable luxury at sea, owe E. K. Collins a great deal for starting it all.

The Atlantic justified Collins’ expectations by breaking Cunard’s westbound record on her return trip, and on her second voyage she broke all records both ways. In April, 1851, the Pacific made history with the first crossing under ten days. (In 1952, when the United States recaptured the Atlantic record, she was the first American ship to hold it since Collins’ ships, a century before.) Excitement was keen on both sides of the water, and Punch provided the final British accolade with a near-seditious jingle:

A steamer of the Collins Line,
A Yankee Doodle Notion,
Has also quickest cut the brine

Across the Atlantic Ocean.
And British agents, no way slow,

Her merits to discover,
Have been and bought her—just to tow

The Cunard packets over!

P. T. Barnum, who recognized a showman when he saw one, was a personal friend of Collins’, and Barnum brought the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind to America on one of the Atlantic’s early voyages after a build-up which is still considered a classic. The rich and celebrated flocked to Collins’ ships; the line soon carried more passengers than Cunard, and as much express freight; but it was not making any money. Pushed at top speed to meet the requirements of their subsidy contract, Collins’ vessels consumed enormous quantities of coal and needed frequent repairs. Realizing the impossibility of raising his fares against Cunard’s competition, Collins decided that the only answer was a larger subsidy. On January 10, 1852, he petitioned Congress for an increase from $385,000 to $858,000 annually—$33,000 for each of 26 voyages.