The wreck of the S.S. Atlantic was an event that rocked the seafaring world for decades, the deadliest civilian ship disaster between 1870 and 1904.
The Harland and Wolff Company in Belfast, Ireland constructed the luxury liner in 1870. At 420 feet long and 3,707 tons, she was a formidable force in the water.
She was the second ship built for the revived White Star Line, which was being rebuilt by a new owner after having been forced into bankruptcy in 1867. The line is best know for its disastrous launching of the Titanic in 1912, but the S.S. Atlantic disaster was historic in its own time.
The S.S. Atlantic was making its 19th journey from Liverpool, England headed for the United States harbor of New York City. She was carrying 952 people, of whom 835 were passengers and the remaining were crewmembers.
As the ship approached North America, the captain and crew decided their current supply of coal would not carry them all the way to New York. They opted for a slight change of course, choosing to dock in Halifax, Nova Scotia and take on more fuel.
It was March 31st, and the ship was battling its way through a heavy storm. It was traveling at approximately 12 knots (22 km/hr) against the wind with very limited visibility. The captain and 3rd officer stayed on the bridge until about midnight, but didn’t realize at the time how close they were to the shore, or that the wind had driven them off course.
Instead of heading for Halifax Harbour, they were instead aiming for the shoreline approximately 12.5 miles to the west. The predicament became clear at about 2 a.m. on April 1, 1873, as the ship struck a rock lurking just below the surface of the water. Known as Marr’s Head, the rock is located about 50 meters from an island off the Novia Scotia coast.
The crew, most of whom survived, immediately tried to lower lifeboats into the water, but they were immediately washed away by the storm. Passengers, including 156 women and 189 children, died in huge numbers. Only one child, a boy named John Hindley, is known to have survived. Of the 952 people, only 390 survived, making it the worst loss of civilian life at sea until 1904, when the Norge crashed on the tiny islet of Rockall off the cost of the U.K.
In Nova Scotia, Reverend William ancient, an Anglican Clergyman stationed in the local area, spearheaded rescue efforts from shore.
Today, the S.S. Atlantic and her disastrous end are remembered by a historical museum in Nova Scotia. There is an interpretation center, a boardwalk along the coastline, a gazebo overlooking the site of the wreck, and a memorial to the victims.
A mass grave was created for the dead, and the boardwalk now passes near the site. There is also a small museum displaying many of the artifacts that have been salvaged from the wreckage over the years, along with interpretive panels commemorating the S.S. Atlantic and the victims of its wreck.