Maritime Disasters

Traveling the western rivers had its special dangers in the form of snags, tricky currents, and continuously shifting channels; however, boat travel on the Great Lakes and the oceans was also not risk-free. The larger the body of water, the bigger and more violent the storms were, and the farther from land in the event of an accident. This era did not have wireless communications, so a captain had no way of signaling his vessel was in distress and calling for help except to send up flares. And as the age of steam dominated shipping, people discovered that as is every other form of new technology, it was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it gave captains more control over their vessels than when they were dependent on sail and wind power. But it also entailed all the dangers of steam power, made worse because most veteran sea captains had Little or no experience with steam engines— how they operated or how to care for them. The master of the ship was therefore totally dependent on his engineers to keep him afloat. And those engineers as a rule had received no formal training in their craft, being self-taught men. Temperamental technology, untrained operators, and primitive communications made for an adventure every time someone set foot on a boat or ship. For all these reasons, most shipwrecks at sea entailed the loss of all persons on board.

As travel via water increased, and as vessels grew larger and therefore able to carry more passengers, the potential for maritime disasters increased.Two of the worst of all time occurred during these years, the sinking of the ocean steamer SS Central America in 1857 and of the Mississippi river steamer SS Sultana in 1865. The sidewheeler Central America was steaming up the eastern seaboard en route from California carrying 600 passengers and 21 tons of gold bars and coins when caught in a hurricane. It sank on September 12 after a hopeless three-day battle to stay afloat, taking down 450 victims and all its cargo. To his credit Captain William Lewis Herndon saw to it that every woman and child on board was saved before he went down with his ship. The


Name of Vessel(s)

Type of Vessel(s)




Loss of Life

SS G.P. Griffith

Paddle-wheel steamer

Jun. 17, 1850

Lake Erie, off Mentor,


Caught fire and burned

286 dead

1) SS Atlantic

2) Smaller sailboat

1) Paddle-wheel steamer

2) Fishing boat

Aug. 20, 1852



250 dead

SS Powhatan

Paddle-wheel steamer

Apr. 16, 1854

Off Long Beach, N.Y.

Ran aground and sank

311 dead

SS New Era

Paddle-wheel steamer

Nov. 13, 1854

Off N.J. shore, 15 mi. below Sandy Hook

Immigrant ship en route from Bremen, Germany, to New York City

More than 300 dead (mostly immigrants)

SS Guiding Star

Paddle-wheel steamer

Jan. 9, 1855


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