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The Unlucky Collins Line

May 2024
17min read

An enterprising Yankee briefy ruled Atlantic sea lanes but a chain of disasters dogged his great steam packets

It was a time when the sea called out to every Yankee lad its promise of adventure and reward. America was still the coastline and the rivers, and both then and thereafter seemed laden with an unmistakable scent of brisk salt air. Mr. Madison’s War of 1812 had ended, the seas beckoned to all who would sail them, and it began to look as if America would not only sail them—but might even inherit them.

New York was well on its way to becoming the nation’s busiest port. It was a city of ships, crowded with masts from every land, and the water front was lined with landsmen whom Herman Melville saw “posted like silent sentinels all around the town … thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging...  They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite.”

In January of 1824 a short young man named Edward Knight Collins arrived on this scene, to add “& Son” to the shipping firm of I. G. Collins. Then just past his twenty-first birthday, Edward Collins had gone to work as a shipping clerk when he was fifteen, sailed as a supercargo on a small vessel in the West Indies trade, and acquired in the Caribbean some firsthand experience of pirates and shipwrecks. Joining his father, Captain Israel Collins, who had given up the sea in 1818 to establish himself as a shipping merchant in New York, the junior partner showed, in his first year with the firm, evidence of the successful daring which was to characterize his spectacular career.


At the end of January, 1825, a ship brought news of a sharp rise in the price of cotton on the English market, and a group of cotton speculators immediately commissioned young Collins to go to Charleston, the nearest cotton port, as its agent. There was no fast overland route: America’s best coastal highway was the sea, and rival cotton buyers were taking the regular Charleston packet that same day. Against his father’s advice, and to the consternation of his backers, Collins chartered a fast New York pilot schooner, hand-picked a crew, and set out to race the packet. By keeping close to shore in his shallow-draft vessel he look advantage of land breezes and avoided the northbound current of the Gulf Stream. When the packet made port with his rivals and news of the price rise, Collins was on his way home with invoices for all the cotton on the Charleston market in his pocket.

Up to this time, Israel Collins had operated only small “transient traders” (which would be called tramp ships today), but in 1827 the firm started a line of packets on a regular schedule to Vera Cruz, Mexico’s chief Gulf Coast port. The line prospered in spite of unsettled political conditions in Mexico and the loss of several vessels on the poorly charted routes, and apparently Edward Collins deserved a good deal of the credit; for when his father died in 1831, the shareholders of an important New York-New Orleans packet line invited E. K. Collins to take over its management. Almost at once, Collins began providing larger vessels, better accommodations, food, and service than his rivals offered, and by hiring outstanding captains, he was able to deliver shorter average passages. His became the favorite of all the coastal packet lines, both for freight and passengers, and was particularly popular with the rich Louisiana planters making their annual visits to New York or the first leg of the long trip to Europe. The short man who always wore a tall hat was on his way to bigger things.

During the slack summer season in the southern trade, the New Orleans packets often made voyages to Liverpool, and in 1835 Collins sent his new ship Shakspeare (the favored spelling then) on this run. Larger than other transatlantic packets, the Shakspeare was more luxuriously appointed, and had as master Collins’ Uncle John. When he reached Liverpool, John Collins had the Shakspeare holystoned, painted, and polished, and opened her to public inspection for a week. She was immediately hailed as the finest packet ship ever seen at that port, and on the return trip carried the largest cargo yet brought to New York. On the strength of this successful venture E. K. Collins decided to enter the Atlantic service.

At this time, Atlantic shipping was virtually an American monopoly, and the United States merchant marine held a position in 1836 which it never reached again, even in the greatest days of the Yankee clippers. This pre-eminence dated back to 1818 when four New York shipowners pooled resources and began regular service to Liverpool in what became the famous Black Ball Line. Their decision to operate on a “frequent and regular” schedule, with ships sailing on fixed dates, is standard practice today; but in 1818 it was considered revolutionary folly. Ships sailed when they had a full cargo—not before; and if passengers, freight, and mail had to wait days or weeks beyond the estimated departure date, that was somebody else’s concern. Old-timers shook their heads knowingly when the first packets sailed half empty. But before long the idea took hold, and a new era in maritime history began when other New York shipowners were forced to follow the pioneer packet line’s lead. When Collins entered the transatlantic service there were already three well-established New York-Liverpool lines, two to London, three to Le Havre, and one Philadelphia-Liverpool—all American-owned and operated.

For some reason no foreign company tried the successful packet line idea, although England found herself in the embarrassing predicament of having her important cotton-weaving industry depend largely on American shipping. New York was the headquarters of the American cotton market, and whether the South liked it or not (and it did not), most cotton for British and French mills passed through New York, leaving a fat slice of the profits there. With Collins’ ships carrying more than their share of cotton—sometimes from New Orleans direct to Liverpool, more often from New Orleans to New York to Liverpool—his new venture was almost certain to prosper. Prosper it did, but E. K. Collins was no man to settle for second place.

His successful formula of bigger and better ships, with greater attention to what the passengers wanted, was put to work in three ships he now built as the Shakspeare’s running mates. Other packet lines named their ships haphazardly after cities, countries, merchants, or members of the owners’ families. Collins, a showman at heart, named his new vessels the Garrick, Sheridan, and Siddons. Likenesses of the famous originals in figureheads and interior decoration gave them the glamour of the classic stage and earned them a catchy title—the “Dramatic Line.” The owner seemed to be able to guess what the public wanted before people realized they wanted it—soda fountains, for instance; cabin quarters located on the better-ventilated upper deck; roomier and airier steerage. And where Collins’ popular innovations led, other lines had to follow, while his motto of “bigger and better” soon made him the leading figure in Atlantic shipping.

Probably his most important contribution—one which the clipper ship authority Carl Cutler calls “the most noteworthy innovation which had yet been developed in American naval architecture”—was the adoption of the long, flat floor of the New Orleans packet, instead of the sharp V-bottom. Brown & Bell, who built the Dramatic vessels, advised against it. Old masters warned they would “never make a passage to the west’ard.” But Collins was sure of his design.

In 1838 he added the 1,030-ton Roscius (named for the celebrated Roman actor) to the line. Much the largest and most luxurious ship yet built, the Roscius cost over half again as much as her nearest competitor. Condemned by skeptics as “Collins’ Folly,” she carried almost as much canvas as the great clippers of later years, with a mainmast nearly as tall. The Roscius was, in fact, a direct antecedent of the unsurpassed clipper ships which were to be the most beautiful vessels America ever built, and like Collins’ other packets amply vindicated his faith in their design. Not only could they carry far more cargo than the older packets, but Commodore Isaac Hull of the frigate Ohio declared flatly that either the Siddons or the Roscius would outsail any vessel in the United States Navy.

Capitalizing on his foresight with his visual showmanship, Collins chose sailing dates to coincide with those of the Black Ball, oldest and most famous packet line, then encouraged the betting on the winner. The Black Ball had eight ships to his four, offering two monthly sailings to his one; but some of the Black Bailers were getting on in years and slow, and the Dramatic Line finished its second year with the best average-passage record for the Liverpool packets. Even the luck of the sea played into his hands, adding to the fame of ships and masters when they saved an unusual number of survivors from other ships in distress. Collins’ shipmasters held English and American decorations for their rescue work, and New York editors began to realize that the E. K. Collins office on South Street was an excellent source of shipping news. Collins had a great flair for public relations, always invited the press to the grand dinners with which he celebrated a ship launching or a maiden voyage, and he was on good terms with all of them, including that notoriously prickly character, James Gordon Bennett of the Herald.

By 1838 anyone even remotely aware of maritime affairs had heard of E. K. Collins. Skillfully combining a sharp Yankee business sense with showmanship, an understanding of public taste with a gambler’s willingness to back up hunches, he and the Dramatic Line were riding the crest. But that year, the same that the Roscius began operating, something happened that changed forever the Dramatic Line, the future of E. K. Collins, and the entire course of maritime history. On April 23 the little British ship Sirius came in sight off Sandy Hook, seventeen days out of Cork—the first vessel to make the crossing entirely by steam power. The city went wild with excitement and curiosity—but there was more to come. A New York paper went on with the account:

… suddenly there was seen over Governor’s Island, a dense black cloud of smoke, spreading itself upwards, and betokening another arrival. On it came with great rapidity, and about 3 o’clock its cause was made fully manifest to the multitudes. It was the steamship Great Western …. This immense moving mass was propelled at a rapid rate through the waters of the Bay; she passed swiftly and gracefully around the Sirius , exchanging salutes with her, and then proceeded to her … anchorage in the East River. If the public mind was stimulated by the arrival of the Sirius , it became intoxicated with delight upon view of the superb Great Western.

Fifteen days from Bristol, the Great Western had just completed the shortest passage that had ever been made.

Most of the packet owners belittled the steamers and went ahead with plans to add new and larger sailing ships to their lines; but Collins is quoted as saying, ”There is no longer chance for enterprise with sails; it is steam that must win the day.” He abandoned plans to double the size of his fleet and built no more sailing ships after the Roscius.

From the beginning of time until that day in April, 1838, the elements had ruled the earth, and man’s struggle against them had been an unequal one. True, there had been earlier signs that the days of sail were numbered: the pioneer American steamship Savannah used her engines during part of a historic European passage in 1819; and by 1825 nearly half of the river traffic was carried in steamboats. But from this moment on, the writing was clear and indelible—and E. K. Collins made his plans accordingly.

For a time the sailing packets held their own. The early steamers were noisy, sooty, smelly, and subject to engine trouble, and a great many passengers refused to have anything to do with them. And while the steamers were laid up in winter months for fear of damaging their machinery, the packets kept right on sailing. Then, in 1840, Samuel Cunard started a line of steamers between Liverpool and Boston, touching at Halifax, supported by a British Post Office subsidy of £60,000 a year. The Cunard ships gave regular service, even in winter, and although packet men claimed that people would not go to Boston to take a steamer, a great many were doing so. New York papers, used to getting European news from New York steamers and the fast packets, soon found themselves receiving most of it via Boston. They didn’t like it and began to agitate for a subsidized American transatlantic steamship line—from New York, naturally. The leading candidate for manager of the line was Edward Knight Collins.

Resistance was bitter, not only from dyed-in-the-wool sailing men but also from an economy-minded Post Office that cared little for speed and stood four-square in favor of “the free winds of heaven.” One steam disaster after another dampened public confidence; the steamship subsidy was quite a while a-borning. When it came, the first American ocean mail contract was given, not to Collins, but to one Edward Mills of New York, for a line to Bremen and Le Havre. The first ship to sail, in June, 1847, was a complete disappointment. Stung by this failure and spurred on by news that Cunard planned to start a Liverpool-New York line in 1848, with a greatly increased Royal Mail subsidy, the Post Office finally awarded Collins a contract. He disposed of all his packet line interests in the fall of 1847, surveyed his competition, and characteristically decided to beat it with something “bigger and better.”


Collins took nearly three years to finance his line and design and build his ships—the Atlantic, Arctic, Baltic, and Pacific . Wooden side-wheelers of 2,856 tons, 282 feet long, they were bigger and more powerful than the terms of Collins’ contract required, and some 500 tons larger than the biggest Cunarders. No steamship of their size had ever been built in America or, with one exception, anywhere. That exception was the iron ship Great Britain, finished in 1845 by the man who later created the fabulous Great Eastern—Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the English genius who specialized in premature monsters. When the Great Britain proved unsuccessful in the transatlantic service, she was shifted to the Australian trade, leaving to Collins’ ships the honor of being the largest on the Atlantic. They were built in shipyards along the East River, and huge crowds turned out to witness the launchings. Cannon salutes boomed, bells rang, spectators kept up a “continued shout,” while Collins entertained distinguished guests—and the press.

Service started with the Atlantic on April 27, 1850. Her first eastbound passage was slowed by mechanical trouble, and she had to lay over in Liverpool for three weeks for repairs. While she was there, English shipping men took an uneasy look at her, remembering Collins’ past performances. There were critics, of course, who called the Atlantic ugly, severe, and stark-looking. Her masts were too short, her sail area too small, her funnel too heavy and short for their taste. Actually, Collins and his architects had broken sharply with tradition, evolving the prototype of the modern ocean liner, except for the auxiliary sails, the paddles, and the wooden hull. America’s rolling mills were still not capable of producing material for a metal ship of that size, and the screw propeller had not developed sufficiently to deliver the required speed.

Internally, there was certainly no starkness or severity. Whereas Cunard specified ships “plain and comfortable, not the least unnecessary expense for show,” Collins believed that ocean travelers liked fancy trimmings, and he provided them. The profuse decorations included state shields, stars, spread eagles, and a painting of Liberty trampling a feudal prince in the dust. There were marble-topped tables, mirrors, paintings, thick carpets, carved and upholstered furniture, and not a few startling innovations—automatic signals from bridge to engine room and from staterooms to stewards’ quarters, a French maître de cuisine, steam heat in the passenger areas, wide “wedding berths” for honeymooners, and a glorious barber shop with patent reclining chair. Today’s ocean voyagers, who enjoy almost every imaginable luxury at sea, owe E. K. Collins a great deal for starting it all.

The Atlantic justified Collins’ expectations by breaking Cunard’s westbound record on her return trip, and on her second voyage she broke all records both ways. In April, 1851, the Pacific made history with the first crossing under ten days. (In 1952, when the United States recaptured the Atlantic record, she was the first American ship to hold it since Collins’ ships, a century before.) Excitement was keen on both sides of the water, and Punch provided the final British accolade with a near-seditious jingle:

A steamer of the Collins Line,

A Yankee Doodle Notion,

Has also quickest cut the brine

Across the Atlantic Ocean.

And British agents, no way slow,

Her merits to discover,

Have been and bought her—just to tow

The Cunard packets over!

P. T. Barnum, who recognized a showman when he saw one, was a personal friend of Collins’, and Barnum brought the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind to America on one of the Atlantic’s early voyages after a build-up which is still considered a classic. The rich and celebrated flocked to Collins’ ships; the line soon carried more passengers than Cunard, and as much express freight; but it was not making any money. Pushed at top speed to meet the requirements of their subsidy contract, Collins’ vessels consumed enormous quantities of coal and needed frequent repairs. Realizing the impossibility of raising his fares against Cunard’s competition, Collins decided that the only answer was a larger subsidy. On January 10, 1852, he petitioned Congress for an increase from $385,000 to $858,000 annually—$33,000 for each of 26 voyages.

He knew he had a tough job on his hands. The alignment in Congress was as it would be in 1861--the industrial and maritime North against the agricultural South—and most of the newly admitted western states sided with Collins’ opponents, protesting that they should not be taxed “to support a New York steamship line.” While Collins argued that a modern steam merchant marine was a vital national asset, with vessels that could be converted to warships in time of emergency, he was also acutely aware that few members of his congressional audience had ever seen anything more impressive than a river or coastal steamer. He couldn’t bring them to New York, so he decided to take the mountain to Mahomet. After checking the depth and width of the winding Potomac channel he announced that the Baltic would visit Washington.

Aside from the sheer spectacular magnificence of the gesture, Collins could not have picked a shrewder thing to do, psychologically. Whatever his opposition said—and it said a great deal—he was to the public an internationally famous American citizen, the Yankee who had twisted the British lion’s tail, a chief ambassador of an onrushing industrial age, and a high-principled man who was giving the nation’s lawmakers an opportunity to inspect one of his wonderful ships.

Collins invited official Washington, from President Fillmore and the Cabinet on down, to visit the Baltic. The ship was moored off Alexandria, and admission was supposed to be by invitation only, but there were so many gate-crashers that many invited guests were unable to come aboard. There were ruffled feelings, of course, but there was no doubting the sensation that finally resulted in an increased subsidy. After the decision, the Baltic obligingly made the line’s best westbound passage, in nine days, thirteen hours; but unfortunately Collins’ opponents had succeeded in writing a cancellation clause into the new contract which would hang over his head from that time forth.

For nearly 25 years, Collins’ ships had been almost miraculously free from serious accidents, but disaster struck at last and its magnitude more than made up for all the years of immunity. The Arctic sailed from Liverpool September 20, 1854. On the twenty-seventh, a hazy day with patches of low-lying fog, she was driving at top speed across the Grand Banks, sixty miles from Cape Race, Newfoundland, when a small steamer suddenly appeared out of the fog, and, before the speeding liner could change course, struck her on the starboard side, just forward of the paddle box. The blow seemed so slight that the Arctic captain’s first concern was for the safety of the smaller ship. He sent a boat to offer assistance before he learned that the Arctic ’s wooden side had been gashed below the water line, and the sea was pouring into her hold and engine room. He headed for land, while efforts were made to plug the leak with mattresses and canvas, but the water gained on the pumps and put out the fires under the boilers. Suddenly the firemen, deck hands, and some of the officers panicked, made a rush for the boats, and left the passengers to shift for themselves with improvised rafts.

Sometime before 1854, Collins had become interested in spiritualism, and before his wife and two of their children left on a trip to Europe, they had arranged to establish communication at a certain hour every night, and to keep records of any “messages” that came through so that they could compare notes when she returned. Whether they established contact, we do not know; but it is certain that they never discussed it again, for Mrs. Collins, their only daughter, and Collins’ youngest son went down on the Arctic, along with 319 other passengers. News of the disaster did not reach New York until October 11, two weeks after it occurred, when it was still hoped that the Arctic was merely overdue because of mechanical difficulties. Collins saw the shattering headlines in a paper as he stepped off the Jersey ferry, and although he probably did not see it at the time, the same edition also told of the burning of the new Great Lakes steamer E. K. Collins, named in his honor by an admiring Detroit shipowner. The eerie pairing of disaster was to be repeated fifteen months later.

On January 22, 1856, the Pacific left Liverpool with a light passenger list owing to the unpopularity of midwinter sailing. She was never heard from again. As a kind of cryptic omen, shortly before her departure the New York pilot schooner E. K. Collins, named in his honor by the Pilots’ Association, was wrecked in a storm near Sandy Hook with the loss of four of her crew. Yet Collins went ahead. On April 7, 1856, the Adriatic was launched—355 feet long, 3,670 tons, and costing over a million dollars—much larger and costlier than the earlier Collins liners. Destined to be the last wooden side-wheeler ever built for transatlantic service, she was badly needed by the Collins Line, which now had only two of its original ships. But the Collins luck was all bad. The Adriatic was scheduled to sail in November, but the date was postponed, then canceled because of machinery trouble. She did not run her first sea trials until a year later.


Meantime, fate had dealt more blows to Collins, both financial and personal. His opponents in Congress invoked the six-month cancellation clause, reducing subsidy payments to the original $385,000. Worse yet, Cornelius Vanderbilt submitted a bid to carry the mails from New York to Southampton for $390,000 less than half the amount Collins felt he needed. It was the same technique Vanderbilt used to freeze out competition in the New York-Isthmus service. On the personal side, George Steers, creator of the Adriatic, was killed by a runaway horse late in September, 1856, long before his great ship was finished. One of Collins’ closest friends, he might have helped correct the mechanical difficulties which delayed the Adriatic’s completion for so long. But a much more telling blow was to follow, on the day the Adriatic was to sail on her maiden voyage. Collins’ Uncle John, who had become the line’s marine superintendent, and had been combination older brother and father to Edward, died on November 21, 1857.

Once again the Adriatic sailing was postponed; and when on November 23 the biggest and most luxurious liner afloat finally departed, she carried only 38 passengers, less than one tenth of her capacity, who were outnumbered by her crew almost five to one. She failed to equal the eastbound or westbound passage records due to bad weather and fog, but made one exceptionally fine day’s run of 380 miles, and occasionally logged fifteen knots. The Adriatic looked like a potential record-breaker, but this was her only voyage for the Collins Line. The Atlantic made a sailing in December, and the Baltic in January, and then, on February 10, a short notice appeared in the ship-news columns: “The Collins steamship Atlantic will not sail on Saturday next for Liverpool, as has been announced.” The Collins Line was finished. The ships were sold at public auction and the line wound up its affairs without having paid a penny in dividends.

There was some public regret at the passing of the line which had once been America’s pride, and jubilation on the part of Collins’ enemies; but for all his early victories, Collins had fought a losing battle from the start. Opposition to the subsidy, the nation’s internal expansion, the Post Office’s ultimate demand for high competitive speed—each had taken its toll. Collins was blamed for the unnecessary luxury of his ships, but this is not entirely fair. A conservatively managed line operating comfortable but unspectacular ships might have succeeded in the long pull with heavy government backing; but America of the 1850’s shared Collins’ compulsion to do things “bigger and better.” The young nation was in a hurry. Yankee clippers were setting new records; locomotives sped west on ever-lengthening tracks; steamboats raced on the Hudson, the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Great Lakes; and the cheering drowned out the roar of occasional bursting boilers. Americans wanted speed, they wanted ostentation, they wanted respect. Collins had given them all of these.

Although the Collins Line breathed its last in 1858, the man who was the Collins Line outlived his creation by nearly twenty years. He never engaged in shipping activities again, turning instead to mineral properties in the Great Lakes region. A farm he owned near Wellsville, Ohio, was found to be rich in coal and iron ore deposits. He began mining operations, he built blast furnaces, he even struck oil. But the Midas touch was gone, and failure followed a brief moment of success in everything he did. Larchmont Manor, his 300-acre estate on Long Island Sound, was mortgaged, subdivided, and sold. His Ohio property, with a house whose interior resembled the cabins and saloons of an ocean liner, was mortgaged back to its original owner. Despite all these failures, Collins held onto his self-respect; and years later an old lady in her nineties, who was only a child when Collins lived in Wellsville, still remembered him in a way he would have liked. “Mr. Collins,” she said, “was a proud walker; he was something more than ordinary.”

During the Civil War, the Atlantic and Baltic were used as transports—the magnificent Adriatic had been “sold foreign” for a third of her cost—and peace saw America’s once-dominant merchant marine almost destroyed, with foreign shipping grown enormously. The New York press appealed for a revival of transatlantic steam service under the American flag, and some papers mentioned Collins. But Collins was an aging, tired man, and America had turned its face away from the Atlantic and was looking westward.

Commodore Vanderbilt had shifted his interest from shipping to railroads, and the death watch at the door of his Fifth Avenue mansion in 1877 was world news. When Collins died in a modest house at 133rd Street and Madison Avenue on January 22, 1878, his passing was almost unnoticed. A few old gentlemen, former masters and chief engineers of his famous record-breakers, attended the funeral; the shipping in New York Harbor lowered its flags in respect; but there were no great American liners on the Atlantic to salute his departure.

Collins’ second wife and her three stepsons fought bitterly over his pitifully small estate, but not one of them bothered to place any sort of modest stone on his grave. Edward Knight Collins, the Yankee lord of the Atlantic who led America’s shipping industry when it led the world, lies in an unmarked grave in sprawling old Woodlawn Cemetery, on the edge of the huge city he helped build into the world’s greatest port.

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