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Remember This? The sinking of SS Atlantic on April 1, 1873

Over 550 people lost their lives when the SS Atlantic sank on April 1, 1873 near Terence Bay
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SS Atlantic Heritage Interpretation Park (Meghan Groff/HalifaxToday.ca)

The worst maritime disaster of the 19th century happened on this date 146 years ago.

Over 550 people lost their lives when the SS Atlantic sank on April 1, 1873 near Terence Bay.

The steamship was on her 19th voyage across the Atlantic carrying almost 1,000 people, including 800 immigrants, from Liverpool, England to New York. 

Historian Bob Chaulk, co-author of SS Atlantic: The White Star Line's First Disaster at Sea, said it was a series of miscalculations that led to the biggest shipwreck in Nova Scotian history.

"Things started to go bad when the chief officer miscalculated the remaining coal. There was some fear they wouldn't make it to New York so the captain decided to divert to Halifax," he explained.

"Unfortunately he messed up the navigation, so he was the second guy to make a mistake."

Chaulk told NEWS 95.7's The Rick Howe Show, having never been to Halifax, Captain James Williams underestimated the strong currents around Nova Scotia's coast caused by the Bay of Fundy, which sent the vessel off course.

"To finish it off, the second officer, who was the officer of the watch that night, he basically ran her onto the rocks the other side of Sambro in a little place called Lower Prospect."

Michael Clancy was asleep in his Marrs Island home when he was awakened by the crash at 3:15 a.m.

According to the SS Atlantic Heritage Interpretation Centre, his was the only house on the island. Clancy mobilized his brother and son to launch a daring and heroic rescue.

"They roused some people from another island, the Ryans next door," Chaulk said. "By just before 6 o'clock they had a boat out, a 24-foot boat that they had to drag across the island and get it launched in conditions that would be similar to a windy day at Peggys Cove."

Eventually two more boats would join the rescue effort.

"Because there was no sensible way to land a boat, they would have had to have people in the water holding the boats to keep the boats from crashing against the rocks when they brought in those people," he explained.

"They were fishing the people out of the water ... they had to pick them up and get them out of the boat and help them over the rocks."

There were 420 survivors of the wreck but none were women and only between one and three were children.

Chaulk said those who were rescued ended up at Clancy's home and were taken care of by his daughter Sarah Jane O'Reilly.

"Everyone who came ashore, those 400 or so people, went through her house at some point. It was so bad they had to bore holes in the floor to drain the water that was dripping off the people."

Of those who perished, 277 were buried in the Protestant cemetery in Terence Bay and another 155 were buried in Lower Prospect's Catholic cemetery.

The SS Atlantic was a White Star Line ship, the same company behind the ill-fated Titanic.




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Meghan Groff

About the Author: Meghan Groff

Born in Michigan, raised in Ontario, schooled in Indiana & lives in Nova Scotia; Meghan is the community editor for HalifaxToday.ca.
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