The Unlucky Collins Line

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He knew he had a tough job on his hands. The alignment in Congress was as it would be in 1861--the industrial and maritime North against the agricultural South—and most of the newly admitted western states sided with Collins’ opponents, protesting that they should not be taxed “to support a New York steamship line.” While Collins argued that a modern steam merchant marine was a vital national asset, with vessels that could be converted to warships in time of emergency, he was also acutely aware that few members of his congressional audience had ever seen anything more impressive than a river or coastal steamer. He couldn’t bring them to New York, so he decided to take the mountain to Mahomet. After checking the depth and width of the winding Potomac channel he announced that the Baltic would visit Washington.

Aside from the sheer spectacular magnificence of the gesture, Collins could not have picked a shrewder thing to do, psychologically. Whatever his opposition said—and it said a great deal—he was to the public an internationally famous American citizen, the Yankee who had twisted the British lion’s tail, a chief ambassador of an onrushing industrial age, and a high-principled man who was giving the nation’s lawmakers an opportunity to inspect one of his wonderful ships.

Collins invited official Washington, from President Fillmore and the Cabinet on down, to visit the Baltic. The ship was moored off Alexandria, and admission was supposed to be by invitation only, but there were so many gate-crashers that many invited guests were unable to come aboard. There were ruffled feelings, of course, but there was no doubting the sensation that finally resulted in an increased subsidy. After the decision, the Baltic obligingly made the line’s best westbound passage, in nine days, thirteen hours; but unfortunately Collins’ opponents had succeeded in writing a cancellation clause into the new contract which would hang over his head from that time forth.

For nearly 25 years, Collins’ ships had been almost miraculously free from serious accidents, but disaster struck at last and its magnitude more than made up for all the years of immunity. The Arctic sailed from Liverpool September 20, 1854. On the twenty-seventh, a hazy day with patches of low-lying fog, she was driving at top speed across the Grand Banks, sixty miles from Cape Race, Newfoundland, when a small steamer suddenly appeared out of the fog, and, before the speeding liner could change course, struck her on the starboard side, just forward of the paddle box. The blow seemed so slight that the Arctic captain’s first concern was for the safety of the smaller ship. He sent a boat to offer assistance before he learned that the Arctic ’s wooden side had been gashed below the water line, and the sea was pouring into her hold and engine room. He headed for land, while efforts were made to plug the leak with mattresses and canvas, but the water gained on the pumps and put out the fires under the boilers. Suddenly the firemen, deck hands, and some of the officers panicked, made a rush for the boats, and left the passengers to shift for themselves with improvised rafts.

Sometime before 1854, Collins had become interested in spiritualism, and before his wife and two of their children left on a trip to Europe, they had arranged to establish communication at a certain hour every night, and to keep records of any “messages” that came through so that they could compare notes when she returned. Whether they established contact, we do not know; but it is certain that they never discussed it again, for Mrs. Collins, their only daughter, and Collins’ youngest son went down on the Arctic, along with 319 other passengers. News of the disaster did not reach New York until October 11, two weeks after it occurred, when it was still hoped that the Arctic was merely overdue because of mechanical difficulties. Collins saw the shattering headlines in a paper as he stepped off the Jersey ferry, and although he probably did not see it at the time, the same edition also told of the burning of the new Great Lakes steamer E. K. Collins, named in his honor by an admiring Detroit shipowner. The eerie pairing of disaster was to be repeated fifteen months later.

On January 22, 1856, the Pacific left Liverpool with a light passenger list owing to the unpopularity of midwinter sailing. She was never heard from again. As a kind of cryptic omen, shortly before her departure the New York pilot schooner E. K. Collins, named in his honor by the Pilots’ Association, was wrecked in a storm near Sandy Hook with the loss of four of her crew. Yet Collins went ahead. On April 7, 1856, the Adriatic was launched—355 feet long, 3,670 tons, and costing over a million dollars—much larger and costlier than the earlier Collins liners. Destined to be the last wooden side-wheeler ever built for transatlantic service, she was badly needed by the Collins Line, which now had only two of its original ships. But the Collins luck was all bad. The Adriatic was scheduled to sail in November, but the date was postponed, then canceled because of machinery trouble. She did not run her first sea trials until a year later.