The Deep Newsletter
Published 1996 by Gene Peterson
Diving the S.S. Atlantic
A granite monument marks the area overlooking Sandy Cove, the site of one of Nova Scotia’s most tragic disasters, the wreck of the S.S. Atlantic.
Considered one of the finest luxury steamers afloat, the Atlantic was 435 feet long and displaced 3,707 tons. She had a 41-foot beam and a hold depth of 36 feet. Her hull was framed with angle iron, with three iron decks eight feet high reinforced by wooden bulkheads and there were seven watertight compartments in the ship. The vessel was powered by four, two cylinder steam engines and could average better than 12 knots on Atlantic crossings from Europe. In addition, she was stepped with four auxiliary, ships rigged masts 150 feet in height. Her interior was comfortably fitted, making the long passages relatively comfortable, despite the large volume of passengers she regularly carried.
Her master, Captain John A. Williams was considered one of the most competent officers in the world and was well liked and respected in Europe and America. Her crew was well disciplined and there were four other officers on board at the time of the sinking. There were 931 passengers on the ill-fated voyage from Liverpool, England to New York.
Her departure was on March 20, 1873. The seas were calm and the trip was uneventful for the early part of the crossing. Then, on the evening of the fourth day, a storm developed. The ship began to pitch and heave with greater intensity each hour. The ocean became mountainous, raging furiously for the next three days. To maintain the speed in the storm more coal was used. After four days of pounding at sea, the coal bunkers were dangerously low and Captain Williams diverted the ship to Halifax to take on more fuel.
On the night of March 31, the Atlantic steamed toward the red light of what Captain Williams believed was Sambro Lighthouse. Captain Williams failed to consult his chart and he mistakenly headed his ship toward the jagged rocks of Peggy’s Point Lighthouse.
At 2:40 a.m. on the morning of April 1, 1873, the steamer crashed into the rocks off Peggy’s Point Lighthouse. The horror of the disaster was unfolding below deck as the hundreds of mostly women and children desperately failed to reach safety as the steamer rolled over on her port side toward the sea. More than 300 hundred drowned almost immediately and another 262 succumbed to the bitter cold and dropped from the decks, rigging and spars into the icy water. It is most unfortunate that the ship rolled toward the open sea instead of the rock covered shore. Some more of the lost may have been able to reach safety.
Captain Williams was severely censured for his neglect of duty and lost his licence for two years. A lenient penalty was imposed on him for his noble efforts to save lives after the disaster and for his previous unblemished record. The tremendous loss of life, over half of the passengers on board made the Atlantic’s sinking the greatest sea tragedy to occur at the time in North America. September 1981 John Moyer, Gary Gentile and I board the lobster boat owned by Harry Bartlet in Propect cove. I researched the Atlantic’s sinking and traveled over 1200 miles to this remote harbor. I was anxious to see the wreck site of the once luxurious White Star liner that lies in these shallow waters. Harry Bartlet’s boat was unique. Unlike the typical dive boats of modern times, Harry’s boat had little in the way of comfort and space. It featured a sapling ladder, a moss-covered bow and a weathered life ring for safety. Harry would often tow a smaller skiff, just in case this sturdy craft foundered. The best thing about Harry’s boat was the location. It was a 15 minute ride to the wreck of the Atlantic and a buoy was in place marking the site.
We dressed at the dock, lowered our gear with a hoist, donned our doubles at the dock and enjoyed the short ride. After Harry lassoed the buoy, we rolled off the stern and plunged to the wreckage scattered below. Here wolf fish postured themselves at high points on the rocks where the broken hull extends from the waist high shallows to depths less than 90 feet. Piles of broken china lay strewn mixed throughout the rocks and wreckage. Occasionally an intact piece or a crest is found digging beneath ths sands. Dead eyes, portholes, marble decorations, organ keys, assorted brass valves and parts have been found in the rock crevices. Ironically a number of St. Christopher metals have been recovered. The most exciting discoveries have been the occasional gold coins. Over the years I have returned to the wreck on several return trips. Surprisingly little has changed. Although Harry has retired from the fishing and dive charter business, he still remembers the divers from Jersey.
Today the visibility is clear. The water cold and the wolf fish remain intimidating.
Good Northern Wrecking!