Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.
For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.
During the nineteenth century, the roughest but most important ocean passage in the world lay between Britain and the United States. Bridging the Atlantic Ocean by steamship was a defining, remarkable feat of the era. Over time, Atlantic steamships became the largest, most complex machines yet devised. They created a new transatlantic world of commerce and travel, reconciling former Anglo-American enemies and bringing millions of emigrants who transformed the United States. In Transatlantic, the experience of crossing the Atlantic is re-created in stunning detail from the varied perspectives of first class, steerage, officers, and crew. The dynamic evolution of the Atlantic steamer is traced from Brunel's Great Western of 1838 to Cunard's Mauretania of 1907, the greatest steamship ever built.
About the Author
Stephen Fox, a freelance historian, is the author of five previous books. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships
The Sailing Packets
Before steamships started crossing the North Atlantic, the best way to travel between Europe and America was by the sailing ships called packets. Built and run mainly by Americans, the packet lines introduced new concepts and comfort levels for ocean voyages. They dominated the transatlantic traffic for decades, setting key precedents for the steamships that eventually replaced them. Along with their more famous contemporaries, the whaling and clipper ships, they comprised the golden age of American sail. Of these three types, the packets lasted the longest and made the most voyages and money for their owners and crews. Yet today whalers and clippers remain drenched in popular legend, while the packets are scarcely known beyond dedicated circles of ship buffs. No packet builder ever became as famous as Donald McKay with his clippers, and no novelist ever wrote a Moby Dick about the packets. They just did their jobs quietly and well, year after year, and then passed into the historical obscurity reserved for predictable competence.
A group of textile importers in New York started the first packet line. The main founder, Jeremiah Thompson, was an English immigrant from Yorkshire who had come to New York at age seventeen in 1801 to join his uncle in representing the family's woolen manufacturing business. From that base they engaged in shipping and shipowning with three local associates. These five men all lived near the waterfront at the southern tip of Manhattan. Four of them were Quakers. (Jeremiah Thompson, an active Friend, was an officer in the New York Manumission Society, dedicated to freeing slaves; but he also made a fortune by exporting raw cotton, grown in the American South by slave labor.)
Thompson had a breakthrough idea for improving ocean travel. At the time, a shipowner might advertise a ship's day of departure, but the captain would then wait until enough cargo and passengers had been loaded, and wind and weather seemed favorable, before weighing anchor. A passenger hoping to embark might have to hang around the docks, spending money on food and lodging and wasting time, for a week or more. Thompson, dealing in volatile markets for finished imports and raw exports, wanted faster, more reliable service. He conceived the notion of a transatlantic ship "line": several vessels under coordinated private management, sailing on known dates between established ports, and locked into an unchanging departure schedule for the foreseeable future.
In the fall of 1817, the Thompsons and their three associates placed a notice in New York's newspapers. "In order to furnish frequent and regular conveyances for GOODS and PASSENGERS," they announced, "the subscribers have undertaken to establish a line of vessels between NEW-YORK and LIVERPOOL, to sail from each place on a certain day in every month throughout the year." They listed the line's first four ships: three-masted and square-rigged, and larger than average size for their time at around 110 feet long and 400 tons. The Pacific, launched in 1807 and the oldest of the four, was especially fast; earlier that year she had made a run to Liverpool in only seventeen days. "These ships have all been built in New-York, of the best materials," the owners asserted. "They are known to be remarkably fast sailers, and their accommodations for passengers are uncommonly extensive and commodious." Thompson and his partners were promising a daring trifecta of speed, comfort, and predictability -- qualities previously unknown on the North Atlantic.
The first two ships of the line sailed from New York and Liverpool in January 1818. For identification they showed a large black ball painted on their fore topsail, at the highest point of the first mast. The "Black Ball Line" at once earned a tight reputation for minding the calendar. Fighting winter gales, the Pacific made a slow return trip to New York of forty-eight days; she was then unloaded and reloaded in an impossibly short six days and left for Liverpool as scheduled on the fifth of April. Later that year, the Black Ball's Courier on leaving Liverpool met the Pacific coming in, and when approaching New York met the Black Baller Amity going out. The line added more ships, allowing two sailings a month each way. For any eastbound trip under twenty-two days or westbound run under thirty-five, Jeremiah Thompson gave the captain a new coat, with a dress for his wife. After two years, even Niles' Weekly Register, from the rival port of Baltimore, had to concede that the Black Ball ships were running with the speed and almost the regularity of a horse-drawn mail coach. "Such steadiness and despatch is truly astonishing," said the Register, "and, in a former age, would have been incredible."
Success brought competition. Atlantic packet lines started running from Philadelphia and Boston. Early in 1824, the Boston line's Emerald caught a rare easterly gale and rode it all the way home from Liverpool in an astonishing seventeen days, a westward record for years. In New York, the Red Star and Blue Swallowtail lines competed directly with Black Ball. Other new lines ran to London and to Le Havre on the northern coast of France. The sharp rivalry among all these lines added another new concept to transatlantic travel. Ship technologies in Europe and America had been essentially static for some two hundred years; conservative builders and owners resisted innovations and kept turning out the same old models. Packet competition kicked ship design into the progressive nineteenth century. Constructed mainly in shipyards along the East River in New York, ever bigger and fancier, the new packets became the largest and finest ships yet built in America, evolving more quickly than any other type of vessel.
Black Ball set the initial pace. The Canada, 132 feet and 545 tons, was launched in March 1823. "We have never examined a ship which was in all respects equal to her," said a local newspaper. Her dining cabin offered polished mahogany tables and pillars, sofas, and plush crimson draperies ...Transatlantic
Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships. Copyright © by Stephen Fox. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
|Prologue: The North Atlantic Ocean and the Britannia||ix|
|Part 1||The Packet Ship Era, 1820-1840|
|1.||The Sailing Packets||3|
|2.||Steam on Water||17|
|Part 2||The Era of Cunard Domination, 1840-1870|
|3.||Ships as Enterprise: Samuel Cunard of Halifax||39|
|4.||Ships as Engineering: Isambard Kingdom Brunel||56|
|5.||The Cunard Line||84|
|6.||The Collins Line||112|
|8.||Emigration and the Inman Line||168|
|9.||Life on a Steamer||196|
|Part 3||The Era of Steamship Competition, 1870-1910|
|10.||The White Star Line||229|
|11.||Competition and Invention||254|
|12.||Ships as Buildings: Two Cycles to Cunard||278|
|13.||Ships as Towns: Officers, Crew, Steerage||310|
|16.||The Two Finest Cunarders||386|