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What Really Happened the Night the SS Atlantic Sank?

Some 150 years after the wreck of this passenger ship, a new book suggests that the historical record needs some serious correction
Bob Chaulk never felt that the story of the SS Atlantic was fully told, so he did more research and wrote a new book to correct the record.

Bob Chaulk never felt that the story of the SS Atlantic was fully told, so he did more research and wrote a new book to correct the record.

Bob Chaulk lives about a half hour from the wreck of the SS Atlantic in Nova Scotia. He often heads out there in a 17-footer that he built himself; it’s what he calls a very modest nod to the grand tradition of his schooner-building ancestors. For the better part of 30 years, he’s been donning a dry suit and descending into the frigid waters off Halifax to dive the site of what, in her day, was the world’s worst transatlantic passenger ship disaster. Chaulk has been searching for clues underwater—and in documents on land, and in conversations with the survivors’ great-great-grandchildren—trying to answer nagging questions about the Atlantic’s demise.

It was a wreck that made the newspapers far beyond Canada when it happened on April 1, 1873, what with the Atlantic being just the second ship ever built by the White Star Line—four decades before White Star would build the RMS Titanic. There were 952 people aboard when the Atlantic, needing extra coal, diverted to Halifax from its intended destination of New York. The Atlantic hit the rocks near Lower Prospect and Terence Bay and more than 560 souls perished, including all of the women and all but one of the children.

Reports in the newspapers suggested the captain, James Williams, may have been drunk, and that all of the surviving male passengers abandoned everyone else to save their own skins. It turns out that those reports could be false, says Chaulk, who is the historian for SS Atlantic Heritage Park. He calls his new book, Atlantic’s Last Stop, an effort to set the historical record straight.

A trade card of the SS Atlantic under full sail

A trade card of the SS Atlantic under full sail

“It was the worst combination of incompetence and bad luck that you could possibly have,” he says. “That’s what makes it such a compelling story.”

Chaulk first wrote about the Atlantic in 2009, when he co-authored SS Atlantic: The White Star Line’s First Disaster at Sea, with his friend Greg Cochkanoff. It was actually Cochkanoff who was supposed to author that book, but he died suddenly of a heart attack, so Chaulk finished the project. He got the manuscript done in time for the publisher’s deadline, but always felt there was more to learn.

“There was so much mystery, so many questions I had, even when I finished the book,” Chaulk says. “The main one was the role of the second officer. It turns out that he was the first cousin of the founder of the White Star Line, Thomas Ismay. In the movie Titanic, there’s a scene where the boats are being lowered, and the managing partner of the White Star Line was on the ship. He kind of slunk into a boat. His name was Bruce Ismay. He was the son of Thomas Ismay, the founder. And Thomas Ismay had a cousin named Henry Metcalf whom he slotted in ahead of more experienced officers as the second officer [on the Atlantic]. The third officer had much more experience on that particular ship at that particular time. I always wondered what Metcalf’s role was. He was the only deck officer to die. It turned out that he was in charge of the ship the night she was lost.”

Salvors work the wreck

Salvors work the wreck

Chaulk’s new book reveals the story of what he believes happened after the Atlantic’s captain laid down in full uniform for a quick nap, leaving 26-year-old Metcalf as the senior officer in charge after midnight, with the fourth officer taking orders from him.

“The captain gave these guys their final orders for the watch, which was to keep a close lookout for a stationary light, which would have been the Sambro lighthouse. A moving light would have been another ship, so his point was, the minute you see that stationary light, call me,” Chaulk says.

They never woke the captain. Instead, Chaulk’s research shows, there was an argument at the helm. “Ten minutes later, they struck the rocks,” Chaulk says. “She struck the rock and rode up—the bow rode up out of the water and was high and dry. This is where the real myths of the wreck happen, because in the stern, it sank in literally minutes. That’s where the single, unaccompanied women were. They all died in their beds. The single men were up in the bow. They all lived.” And the captain, he says, was neither drunk nor incompetent.

Chaulk diving on the remains of the ship

Chaulk diving on the remains of the ship

“A lot of the book is about that,” Chaulk says. “This isn’t just a wreck story. I delve into the characters and their histories. The captain had a past, as did Metcalf and others.”

The other thing that has always bothered Chaulk is that nobody ever documented the stories of the people who survived—or of the locals who launched their fishing boats in the dead of night to rescue them as they swam for their lives in rock-strewn, 30-degree water. Chaulk wanted to know “how 400 people ended up in Halifax, sleeping in other people’s beds,” he says. “Some people with broken bones were down in Lower Prospect for over a week, where the houses had 10 kids and three bedrooms.

That story was unknown until now, according to Chaulk.

“I was able to find the records of all of that in the Court of Vice Admiralty in Halifax—all their names, who owned the boats, who was in each boat,” he says.

Chaulk also found and interviewed some of those boaters’ descendants for Atlantic’s Last Stop, which was published in October 2021. “I tracked down the great-grandson of the captain. I got the great-grandson of the fourth officer,” Chaulk says. “It’s really interesting to see the stories that go down through families.” 

This article was originally published in the March 2022 issue.

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