By Peter P Dobbing
Life was never easy for the mostly agricultural peoples of Ireland and then in the nineteenth century came the potato famine and times went from bad to very bad and even worse.
Readers of this story don’t need me to describe the details of the period, the hardship and misery are well-known to everyone. The death rate from famine and disease was staggering and even those who could help, in general did very little. It came to the point where ordinary people had to either get out or go under.
Those who could chose the former but the road they travelled was not on the ground but on water, to America where prosperity and freedom awaited.
Crossing the Atlantic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was far from easy. Anyone who visits the Queenstown Experience in Cobh and views the video exhibition will get some idea of the conditions.
The North Atlantic in winter was no place for the faint hearted, a fast sailing ship in those days could take 40 days to get to New York from Cork. With the advent of steam power things did improve but only slowly.
First came the hybrid ships, those using steam to augment sail power and the first of these to cross the Atlantic was the SS Savannah, a paddle steamer carrying no passengers and sailing in May 1819 from Georgia to Liverpool in 29 days. The vessel only used steam power for less than 90 hours during the voyage and the concept was deemed uneconomical. No other American steamship would cross the Atlantic for 30 years.
However, by the 1830s progress had moved forward, especially in Great Britain, Brunel was building his Great Western and a much smaller wooden hull ship just 178 feet long and able to carry a maximum of 412 tons was operating a service between Cork and London.
The SS Sirius had been built in Scotland and was being operated by the St. George Steam Packet Co. of Cork Ireland. She was fitted with a single 2 cylinder side lever steam engine developing 370 kW and was able to carry 40 passengers with a crew of 36 for a nominal distance of 3334 miles at 7.7 mph.
In 1838, the directors of the British and American Steam Navigation Co., desperate to beat Brunel in the race to cross the Atlantic, chartered the Sirius only a few days before the Great Western was due to sail.
Long, arduous journey
The SS Sirius departed Cork on the 4th April, 1838, captained by Richard Roberts, a man from Passage West and a former Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Overloaded with 45 passengers and all the coal she could carry, Sirius dropped anchor in New York harbour on 22nd April after a voyage of 18 days, 4 hours and 22 minutes, a speed of 9.1 mph. Only 15 tons of coal remained in her bunkers.
The SS Great Western was not far behind, setting sail on the 8th April she arrived on 23rd after a voyage of 15 days 12 hours. Because of differing start/finish points Sirius actually sailed 4123 miles and Great Western 3705 miles.
Nevertheless, Sirius can claim to be the first Atlantic Blue Riband Holder, although the award was not officially instigated until some years later when the start and finish points were fixed as the Bishops Rock Lighthouse off the Sicily Isles and the Ambrose Light in New York harbour.
The Sirius was also the first steam vessel to complete the eastbound crossing, doing this in 18 days from 1st May, 1832. After this she did one more round trip to America before being returned to her original owners and previous routes.
Ship operators now took a renewed interest in oceanic travel. With transit times halved to the New World carrying goods was more profitable, although with the sea voyage was still hazardous as some operators were inclined to be greedy. The SS President was a British passenger liner and the largest ship in the world when commissioned in 1840, when she was lost at sea with all 136 on board in March 1841.
She was the first steamship to founder on the transatlantic run. The SS President was British and American owned and noted for her luxurious interiors, but to increase her passenger capacity a third deck had been added, which made the vessel top heavy, unstable and grossly underpowered.
On the 11th March, 1841 the SS President left New York for Liverpool on her third eastbound voyage. The ship was known to be overloaded with cargo and was seen the next day struggling in a storm. After that she was never seen again and the British and American Steam Navigation Company collapsed as a consequence.
It is interesting to note that the captain of the SS President was Richard Roberts, previously captain of the Sirius, a true man of the sea he would never return to Passage West.
Over the next few decades steam engine power increased enormously and not only were ships bigger and could carry more cargo and passengers, they were safer and able to hold their own against the elements.
Towards the dawn of the twentieth century transatlantic travel was much improved, large steam powered vessels provided a regular and safe service to carry thousands of people of many nationalities, America welcomed them all.
From 1892 until 1954 the immigrant gateway to America was Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, here was provided medical and other facilities necessary for those having just completed an arduous and dangerous journey. Many tales can be told of Ellis Island but to the vast majority of immigrants the outcome was good.
Today, more than 100 million Americans, 40% of the population, can trace their heritage back to those who entered through Ellis Island. The very first Irish immigrants to come that way were Annie Moore and her two brothers, Anthony and Philip from County Cork aboard the SS Nevada on the 1st January, 1892.
Annie was aged 17 and as the first person to use the facility she was presented with an American $10 gold piece. A statue of Annie and her two brothers stands on the quayside in Cobh and she is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York City.
Feature image by Ron Cogswell.