Fires and Shipwrecks

Fires and Shipwrecks

Immigrants suffered many dangers when crossing the Atlantic. This included ships catching fire. In August, 1848, a sailor searching for stowaways on board the Ocean Monarch, left a burning candle unattended. The ship carrying immigrants from Liverpool to Boston, caught fire and 176 lives were lost. The following year 101 emigrants were killed when the Caleb Grimshaw caught fire and soon afterwards 51 died on board the St George in another blaze. As ships got larger so did the deaths from fires. In September, 1858, an estimated 500 immigrants died after a fire on the steamship Austria. Another 400 died on the William Nelson in July, 1865.

Passengers had more chance of survival if their ship hit the rocks. When the Jacob A. Westervelt bound for New York foundered off the coast of Newfoundland in December, 1853, all 700 passengers survived. However, when the same thing happened to the Powhatan at New Jersey, over 200 German immigrants drowned before they reached the shore.

In 1834 seventeen ships sunk in the Gulf of St Lawrence and 731 emigrants lost their lives. In a five year period (1847-52) 43 emigrant ships out of 6,877 failed to reach their destination, resulting in the deaths of 1,043 passengers. In 1854 the steamship City of Glasgow carrying 480 emigrants went missing after leaving Liverpool and was never heard of again.

The introduction of large steamships to transport emigrants did make the journey safer. However, when these ships did go down the death toll was much higher. In April, 1873 The Atlantic hit Meagher's Rock, on the coast of Nova Scotia. It quickly broke up and 546 out of the 862 passengers on board lost their lives.

On 10th April 1912, the Titanic, the largest ship in the world (46,300 tons), started her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. Four days later it struck an iceberg and sunk. A large number of the 825 passengers who died were immigrants on their way to America.

Drawing of the Atlantic on Meagher's Rock, Nova Scotia in April, 1873.
Drawing of the Atlantic on Meagher's Rock, Nova Scotia in April, 1873.

Primary Sources

(1) Thomas Littledale, was on one of the rescue boats trying to help passengers on the burning Ocean Monarch in August, 1848. The disaster caused the death of 176 emigrants on the way to Boston.

The flames were bursting with immense fury from the stern and centre of the vessel. So great was the heat in these parts that the passengers, men, women and children, crowded to the fore part of the vessel. In their maddened despair women jumped overboard; a few minutes more and the mainmast shared the same fate. There yet remained the foremast. As the fire was making its way to the fore part of the vessel, the passengers and crew, of course, crowded still further forward. To the jib-boom they clung in clusters as thick as they could pack - even one lying over another. At length the foremast went overboard, snapping the fastenings of the jib-boom, which, with its load of human beings, dropped into the water amidst the most heartrending screams both of those on board and those who were falling into the water. Some of the poor creatures were enabled again to reach the vessel, others floated away on spars, but many met with a watery grave.

(2) Patrick Leahy, a young Irish emigrant, was on board The Atlantic that Meagher's Rock, Nova Scotia during a gale in April, 1873. He managed to hold onto the rigging but he saw many washed away.

A large mass of something drifted past the ship on the top of the waves, and then was lost to view in the trough of the sea. As it passed by, a moan - it must have been a shriek, but the tempest dulled the sound - seemed to surge up from the mass, which extended over fifty yards of water; it was the women. The sea swept them out of the steerage, and with their children, to the number of 200 or 300, they drifted thus to eternity.