The Unlucky Collins Line

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Meantime, fate had dealt more blows to Collins, both financial and personal. His opponents in Congress invoked the six-month cancellation clause, reducing subsidy payments to the original $385,000. Worse yet, Cornelius Vanderbilt submitted a bid to carry the mails from New York to Southampton for $390,000 less than half the amount Collins felt he needed. It was the same technique Vanderbilt used to freeze out competition in the New York-Isthmus service. On the personal side, George Steers, creator of the Adriatic, was killed by a runaway horse late in September, 1856, long before his great ship was finished. One of Collins’ closest friends, he might have helped correct the mechanical difficulties which delayed the Adriatic’s completion for so long. But a much more telling blow was to follow, on the day the Adriatic was to sail on her maiden voyage. Collins’ Uncle John, who had become the line’s marine superintendent, and had been combination older brother and father to Edward, died on November 21, 1857.

Once again the Adriatic sailing was postponed; and when on November 23 the biggest and most luxurious liner afloat finally departed, she carried only 38 passengers, less than one tenth of her capacity, who were outnumbered by her crew almost five to one. She failed to equal the eastbound or westbound passage records due to bad weather and fog, but made one exceptionally fine day’s run of 380 miles, and occasionally logged fifteen knots. The Adriatic looked like a potential record-breaker, but this was her only voyage for the Collins Line. The Atlantic made a sailing in December, and the Baltic in January, and then, on February 10, a short notice appeared in the ship-news columns: “The Collins steamship Atlantic will not sail on Saturday next for Liverpool, as has been announced.” The Collins Line was finished. The ships were sold at public auction and the line wound up its affairs without having paid a penny in dividends.

There was some public regret at the passing of the line which had once been America’s pride, and jubilation on the part of Collins’ enemies; but for all his early victories, Collins had fought a losing battle from the start. Opposition to the subsidy, the nation’s internal expansion, the Post Office’s ultimate demand for high competitive speed—each had taken its toll. Collins was blamed for the unnecessary luxury of his ships, but this is not entirely fair. A conservatively managed line operating comfortable but unspectacular ships might have succeeded in the long pull with heavy government backing; but America of the 1850’s shared Collins’ compulsion to do things “bigger and better.” The young nation was in a hurry. Yankee clippers were setting new records; locomotives sped west on ever-lengthening tracks; steamboats raced on the Hudson, the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Great Lakes; and the cheering drowned out the roar of occasional bursting boilers. Americans wanted speed, they wanted ostentation, they wanted respect. Collins had given them all of these.

Although the Collins Line breathed its last in 1858, the man who was the Collins Line outlived his creation by nearly twenty years. He never engaged in shipping activities again, turning instead to mineral properties in the Great Lakes region. A farm he owned near Wellsville, Ohio, was found to be rich in coal and iron ore deposits. He began mining operations, he built blast furnaces, he even struck oil. But the Midas touch was gone, and failure followed a brief moment of success in everything he did. Larchmont Manor, his 300-acre estate on Long Island Sound, was mortgaged, subdivided, and sold. His Ohio property, with a house whose interior resembled the cabins and saloons of an ocean liner, was mortgaged back to its original owner. Despite all these failures, Collins held onto his self-respect; and years later an old lady in her nineties, who was only a child when Collins lived in Wellsville, still remembered him in a way he would have liked. “Mr. Collins,” she said, “was a proud walker; he was something more than ordinary.”

During the Civil War, the Atlantic and Baltic were used as transports—the magnificent Adriatic had been “sold foreign” for a third of her cost—and peace saw America’s once-dominant merchant marine almost destroyed, with foreign shipping grown enormously. The New York press appealed for a revival of transatlantic steam service under the American flag, and some papers mentioned Collins. But Collins was an aging, tired man, and America had turned its face away from the Atlantic and was looking westward.

Commodore Vanderbilt had shifted his interest from shipping to railroads, and the death watch at the door of his Fifth Avenue mansion in 1877 was world news. When Collins died in a modest house at 133rd Street and Madison Avenue on January 22, 1878, his passing was almost unnoticed. A few old gentlemen, former masters and chief engineers of his famous record-breakers, attended the funeral; the shipping in New York Harbor lowered its flags in respect; but there were no great American liners on the Atlantic to salute his departure.