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Steam Titans

The rise of modern sea travel

Created date

March 2nd, 2018
a painting of a steam boat

One of the Collins Line’s steamships, the U.S.M. Arctic struck a French ship while en route from Liverpool to New York. Of the roughly 400 people aboard, an estimated 300 souls perished, including Mary Ann Collins, the wife of the line’s owner.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, perhaps the greatest product of the Industrial Revolution forever transformed domestic and, more importantly, international travel. The advent of steam power changed the world through transportation in ways that even those who witnessed it firsthand could not fully comprehend.

As early as 1803, Robert Fulton had finished a working steamboat, which he sailed up France’s Seine River, making 4 mph against the current. By 1807, Fulton had built the first successful commercial passenger steamboat, the Clermont, which sailed between New York City and Albany.

The vessel could make the 150-mile journey in only 30 hours—a feat for the time. But as historian William M. Fowler, Jr., demonstrates in his latest book Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins, and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic (Bloomsbury, 2017), this was simply the beginning, for what started on rivers spread to the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

Treacherous journeys

“Before steam power, in the age of ships of sail, crossing the North Atlantic was a harrowing prospect,” says Fowler, an expert on maritime history and the former director of the Massachusetts Historical Society. “To this day, its waters are notoriously treacherous, as is the weather.”

This was chiefly the case in the winter months, when freezing temperatures, combined with ocean spray, caused icing on a ship’s sails and rigging. This could make the vessel top heavy and, in turbulent waters, dangerously at risk of capsizing.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ships routinely foundered during the 3,000-mile crossing between England and the American Northeast. This changed with steam; but according to Fowler, there was a caveat.

“In order to make a transatlantic crossing, you would have to take on so much coal that you had limited space for passengers and freight, which was what made such a venture even remotely profitable to begin with.

“Early on, steamships were not economical over long passages,” he explains. “That’s why you have this gap between Fulton’s riverboat and widespread commercial steamship travel across the Atlantic.”

An apt example is the steamship Savannah, which, in 1819, crossed the Atlantic in 30 days. Despite her fast pace, she was an economic disaster mainly because the amount of coal required to run her hideously inefficient engine ate up space that otherwise could have been occupied by profitable passengers and freight.

Still, there were those who saw the writing on the wall in the United States and abroad in England. Build bigger ships with more efficient engines and significantly reduce travel time.

One was American Edward Knight Collins, who ultimately assumed control of his father’s New York City-based shipping company, popularly known as the Collins Line. By the mid 1850s, Collins had taken the business from a series of wind-driven packets to a fleet of five luxurious steamships that were the Concord jets of their day.

Launched in 1849, the line’s SS Pacific, for instance, accommodated 280 first- and second-class passengers. With a fairly consistent speed of 14 miles per hour, such ships provided regular service between New York City and Liverpool.

What was once a 40-day trip, now took just over a week.

“This new high-speed travel changed everything, especially the transmission of information,” says Fowler. “At the time, information traveled across the Atlantic and that depended on the speed of the fastest vessel; so, instead of getting newspapers from Liverpool to New York in a month’s time, you got them in about a week and a half.”

In the interim, life for the passengers was decidedly sumptuous.

Collins steamers typically stocked thousands of pounds of fine meats, delicacies, cheeses, and fresh vegetables, all safely chilled and preserved. Menu items included boiled bass in Hollandaise sauce; sugar-cured ham; turkey with oyster sauce; beef, poultry, mutton, and fresh lobster; macaroni and cheese; peas, asparagus, and mashed potatoes; salads; fruits; pastries; and beer, wine, and spirits.

Such lavish trimmings required more money than the line was capable of generating and, therefore, Collins greatly depended on government subsidies—generally about $385,000 a year (roughly $11 million today). And as Fowler points out in his book, that’s precisely what gave Collins’ British competitor the edge and, in the end, dominance of the North Atlantic.

America turns inland

Nearing the 1860s, Americans were turning their backs and closing their wallets to the sea in favor of railroads and westward expansion. The loss of this critical government funding left the Collins Line in ruin.

Meanwhile, its rival across the Atlantic, shipping magnate Sir Samuel Cunard, thrived.

“The British were in an entirely different position,” explains Fowler. “They had an overseas empire that demanded a strong merchant marine, while Americans were moving inland.

“So Cunard’s government funding never really stopped, and they have a huge line of cruise ships to this day.”

Even so, Fowler’s masterfully written history of their transatlantic battle paints a portrait in which the vision of both characters—Collins and Cunard—is responsible for the modern age of luxury sailing, wherein the ship is more the destination than a mode of travel.