SS Atlantic shipwreck remembered in new museum exhibit
Published Saturday, April 14, 2018 3:07PM ADT
When you think of tragic Maritime disasters, the Titanic immediately comes to mind. But you may not know that the largest North-Atlantic marine disaster prior to the Titanic also occurred on the shores of Nova Scotia.
The well-known Titanic disaster of 1912, has much in common with the sinking of the SS Atlantic, an ocean liner that sank just outside of Halifax in April of 1873, killing more than 550 people.
"The worst Trans-Atlantic passenger ship disaster of the 19th century and the worst of the 20th century, were ships that were built in the same yard, belong to the same company, and were travelling at night, in April, and both experienced a collision," explains historian Bob Chaulk, author of the book 'SS Atlantic: The White Star Line's First Disaster at Sea'.
Built by White Star Line- the same company behind the Titanic- the SS Atlantic was making its way from Liverpool, England to New York City when they were diverted to Halifax.
"They ran low on coal because they had a very stormy crossing and they were afraid they wouldn't make it to New York, so they did the sensible thing and diverted to Halifax," explains Chaulk.
But the ship's captain had never sailed into Halifax and didn't take into account the strong local currents created by the Bay of Fundy.
The ship was swept about 25 km off course, and at 3:15 a.m. on April 1st, the SS Atlantic smashed full speed into the rocky shores at Lower Prospect.
Aboard were nearly 1000 passengers and crew, as well as valuable cargo such as copper, jewellery and earthenware. Most of the people aboard were immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia.
That’s why the story of the SS Atlantic is being featured in a new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax.
"The SS Atlantic was a major immigration disaster, it was a terrible ocean liner sinking, a pre-cursor to the Titanic, but it was also a ship full of immigrants trying to build new lives in North America," says Dan Conlin, curator of the Canadian Museum of Immigration.
More than 500 people died, making it the worst single Maritime disaster off the Canadian coast until the Titanic, nearly 40 years later.
"Just think of the families they would have started in North America, the businesses they would have started, whole communities that could have been started that we don't have today because their immigration voyage ended on the seaweed covered rocks outside of Lower Prospect," says Conlin.
While the story of the SS Atlantic may not be as well-known as the Titanic, the shipwreck had a long last impact on the nearby communities of Lower Prospect and Terence Bay, where a monument was erected in 1915 in memory of those who perished.
The number of casualties could have been much higher if it wasn't for the heroic rescue efforts of local fishermen.
"They rescued 370 people off the half-sunken ship and from a rock, which is today called Golden Rule rock, where a number of men had swam to, but couldn't get off because it was too rough and the tide was rising," explains Chaulk.
The story hits home to the descendants of the shipwrecks survivors.
Elizabeth Church's Great Grandfather, Irving Ezeriah Studdiford, was the only Canadian to survive.
"He never talked about it, it was only about 10 years ago when my cousin discovered it, and when you look at his life, he never worked on ships again, so I take from that it had a big impact on him," says Church.
The new exhibit features stories and artifacts from the SS Atlantic. The exhibit opened April 13 at Pier 21's Canadian Museum of Immigration, and will run until May 30th.
With files from CTV Atlantic's Allan April.