On the morning of September 10, 1861, a coach pulled up at the docks at Liverpool. At the busy waterfront amid cargo and passenger trunks, it found its way toward its destination - the towering hull of the Great Eastern, the largest ship in the world.
Stepping from its open door was the Rev. Danial V. McLean. After four years in England where he also occasionally preached, this Presbyterian minister and former president of Lafayette College was returning to his home in Easton and to a country divided by a civil war.
McLean had had some success at the college in stabilizing, for a time, its somewhat shaky financial position. He had resigned the presidency in 1858, so the president’s salary could be used to support the college. The duties of president were turned over to two trustees.
McLean’s biggest coup was luring from Amherst College Professor Francis March, a known protégé of Noah Webster, then considered the nation’s leading scholar. March established the first program for the study of English as a language in American colleges, which was soon copied across the nation.
Exactly why McLean had chosen the Great Eastern to make his return crossing is unknown. Perhaps it seemed the fastest and most secure way to travel. So, when he put down his 27 pounds for a first-class cabin, it all made sense.
The ship had certainly attracted attention, for both its size and its luxurious passenger accommodations. But it was also known to have been prone to mishaps, some dating to its construction. It was McLean’s misfortune to find himself in the middle of one of them.
Not all that long ago it was still possible by opening a New York newspaper to find the sailing and arrival times of transatlantic steamers. These ocean gray hounds, the pride of the nations who built them, added a touch of glamor and excitement with their arrival in New York. All the city’s major papers made it a point to have at least one reporter down at the pier to interview the prominent passengers coming from or going to Europe.
The Great Eastern, the first of its kind, was created to solve a problem. By the 1850s, more and more English immigrants wanted to travel to Australia. And shipping companies wanted a better way to accommodate them in larger numbers and without having to re-fuel. So, they turned the question over to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the most creative engineering mind in Britain.
Brunel was already famous for his success in building bridges and tunnels across the island. His pioneering success in steam travel with the transatlantic voyages of the Great Western and the Great Britain had enhanced his reputation.
Pondering the question on March 25, 1852, Brunel sketched the rough idea and outlines of the ship that would be needed. He knew at once that such a ship that could carry up to 4,000 passengers and could travel around the world without refueling would have to be many times - at least six times - larger than any ship ever built.
"Such a ship would benefit from economies of scale," noted one source on Brunel’s reasoning, "and would be both fast and economical, requiring fewer crew than the equivalent tonnage made up of smaller ships."
One important factor would be how to propel such an oceangoing giant. Single screw propellers could work but none were big enough or powerful enough. So, he included a side paddle wheel shaft and a series of sails that would give it added strength against the ocean.
Brunel showed his plans to John Scott Russell, a naval architect and ship builder. Russell decided that it would take 8,500 horsepower to move a ship that big at a speed of 14 knots, but that it could be done. With these plans worked out, they went to the Eastern Steam Navigation Company, which agreed to underwrite the cost.
No one thought building the largest ship in the world would be simple. But disagreements between Russell and Brunel were clear from the start. The labor force required was huge. Safety was non-existent. Men were blown up in one case by an overheated steam pipe that launched a funnel like a rocket. It was caused by a valve being left shut by accident after a pressure test of the system.
In other cases, young boys marking the places where rivets should be placed fell from the ship’s high iron hull. Some claimed the Great Eastern was haunted by the spirits of the men who died in her construction. Strange knocking noises were said be heard from its hull. Some felt those fears were justified when it was said that while the ship was being broken up for scrap, two skeletons fell out of it.
The Great Eastern was finally done by 1858. It was 692 feet long and 82 feet across. With 4 decks, it had 18 lifeboats, later raised to 20, and was designed to carry 4,000 passengers and a crew of 418. Its most unique feature was a double skinned hull, something that would not be standard on ships for 100 years.
In 1862, it proved its worth by preventing the Great Eastern’s sinking when the ship gashed into an undersea object that tore an 83-foot-long hole in its side, perhaps 60 times the size of the hole on the Titanic, outside New York harbor. Not a single life was lost.
The effort exhausted Brunel, particularly after the sea trials of the Great Eastern turned out to be less than successful.
"I have never embarked on any one thing to which I have entirely devoted myself, and to which I have devoted so much time, thought and labor, on the success of which I have set so much reputation," he said.
Brunel collapsed from a stroke after being photographed on the Great Eastern, dying 10 days later. Another victim was the Eastern Steamship Navigation Company, which went bankrupt. It was taken over by the Great Eastern Ship Company.
Eventually it was discovered that the Great Eastern could never be used for its original destination of Australia. It could not fit through the Suez Canal. But even much earlier it was put into transatlantic service from Britain to New York, where it was assumed to be more profitable.
The maiden voyage of the Great Eastern began on June 17, 1860, with 35 paying passengers, eight company "dead heads" (non-paying customers) and 418 crew. It was a complete success. The ship performed perfectly and made the crossing in 11 days.
One passenger, a journalist for a publication called Spirit Of The Times, noted how quiet it was compared to normal steamships; the engines were providing almost no vibration. A sailor on board during a storm said that she took the waves easily.
McLean’s voyage was to be the Great Eastern’s third. It was the first in which she carried a full 4,000 passengers. The big ship attracted a crowd at the dock estimated at 100,000, who cheered and waved.
Like some latter-day musical, the visitors danced with the great ship as a backdrop. The passengers gathered on the Great Eastern’s long promenade deck that the crew nicknamed Oxford Street, after a busy London boulevard. American passengers called it Broadway. Dancing broke out there as well.
At approximately 1 p.m. Captain James Walker gave the command and the Great Eastern got underway. The dancing and singing continued as the ship passed the south of Ireland in St. George’s Channel. Where Rev. McLean was during all this frivolity is unknown. Perhaps he was reading his Bible.
The third day out a storm had come up, one of those gales that frequently strike the Atlantic in September. At first, the passengers noticed only a slight roll and the Great Eastern seemed to be taking it in stride. But by the morning of the fourth day things were not getting any better, in fact they got worse.
Waves were smashing into the deck. Soon the staterooms were soaked. The passengers sought refuge in the Grand Saloon. Furniture flung itself at them from across the room. Attempts to stand upright were useless. Then a huge wave smashed the glass skylights, sending sea water pouring in. Another smashed the cattle pen open, sending the terrified animals loose on the deck. An inspection of the hold of the ship showed that cargo had not been securely put in place and was smashing around the hull.
The paddle wheels were so severely damaged they were no longer able to answer the rudder. In short, the most complex piece of marine technology created so far by man was as helpless as driftwood.
Deciding they had had enough, the passengers formed a committee to confront the captain. George Oakwood, a Liverpool merchant, was named chairman and McLean was also a member. But it was passenger Hamilton E. Towle, an American civil engineer, who was the driving force.
After inspecting the rudder room, Towle came up with a plan to repair it. Captain Walker refused to listen, but the committee pressured him to let Towle try. First, Towle had to tighten the nut which held the rudder to the rudder post. He used the swing of the rudder from port to starboard to tighten it, a process that took three hours. Using a 100-foot chain of 60-pound links, all this was secured to the port and starboard side of the ship by a block and tackle. "Now at least with limited movement the rudder of the ship was steerable," notes in an official history.
On Sunday morning the storm abated, and services of thanksgiving were held by McLean which were attended by the passengers and crew. But only under a great deal of pressure could Captain Walker be persuaded to try Towle’s repairs.
Despite some minor problems, they were a success and the Great Eastern managed to travel 300 miles back to the Irish port of Queenstown now Cobh. The passengers were put ashore, but not before they ate the last of the ship’s food and drank the last of its champagne.
The Great Eastern Company paid the full fare of the passengers who returned to America or back to England. However, Towle was angry when the company refused to give him any credit for saving their property. He put in a claim for salvage and was awarded $15,000. It was estimated at the rate of exchange at the time that company would have to have 24,000 passengers to clear the debt.
What ship McLean took is unclear. But he did give an account of the voyage in a letter to the Easton Express. In it he expressed his beliefs as to what led to the Great Eastern’s troubled voyage that have echoes of things blamed for the Titanic disaster 51 years later:
“Captain Walker behaved with great courage and coolness after the disaster and labored most incessantly night and day to save his ship and passengers: yet it is my deliberate conviction that he is greatly to blame, and that his conduct before the disaster was reckless," McLean said. "He took the ship only a few days before she sailed, a stranger to her: he might have known how she was provided for sea as to ballast and in other respects, and if not suitably provided should have had the defects remedied or refused to have taken command of her.
There is every reason to believe he went to sea under instructions, and himself determined to make the shortest possible passage. The new steamer New York was to sail the day after we did, and it was presumed she intended to try her speed," McLean said. "The Persia was to sail four days after us, and it was known she had put on coal of extra quality, determined to do her best. Under these circumstances and feeling that if he made a short passage his own reputation and that of his ship would be made.”
The New York was a transatlantic passenger paddle steamer of the new North German Lloyd Line out of Bremerhaven that had begun service in 1858. The Cunard lines S.S. Persia, then the holder of the transatlantic speed record of 9 days, was the ship that the Great Eastern’s owners with a crossing average of 11 days had hoped to beat.
The desire of the White Star Line’s Bruce Ismay to set a speed record for Titanic to New York has long been known. And as Captain E.J. Smith went down with his ship, it was impossible to know for certain what pressures might have been put on him. Speculation on that and other issues around the cause of the Titanic’s sinking remains rife among many.
On his return, McLean eventually took over a church in Red Bank, N.J., where he was apparently content to confine his future contact with the Atlantic Ocean to what he could see of it from his windows. He died there in 1869 at age 67.
The Great Eastern, under better skippers than Captain Walker, was to have some memorable moments in its future, most significantly being the platform for the laying of the early transatlantic telegraph cable. Writer Jules Verne, with his brother Paul, was one of the passengers on those cable voyages and used the ship as an inspiration for his book "A Floating City" and its luxurious Victorian interiors to those he created for the submarine quarters of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus in "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea."
According to one source at the urging of American passengers, Verne with his brother at the Grand Saloon’s piano sang “La Marseillaise,” the Republican national anthem of France, then banned in that country by Emperor Napoleon III.
In the end, the great ship was a white elephant of navigation. Eventually her hull was used as a gigantic beach side billboard for a Liverpool department store and finely salvaged for scrap in 1889.