Gangs of workmen and an iron wrecking ball (invented for the occasion) pounded the great ship’s metal hull round the clock for two years. Like everything else about the Great Eastern, the task of removing its three million bolts confounded the experts of its time. When quiet finally returned to the countryside near Cheshire, England the salvagers, like every other group that owned the Great Eastern, had lost a fortune.
We’ve become accustomed to seas trafficked by city-sized aircraft carriers and supertankers so long crewmen travel from stern to bow by bicycle. But back in 1858, when the 693-foot-long Great Eastern was launched, there wasn’t a ship in the world even approaching it in size. Six times the tonnage of any contemporary vessel, it was the giant of its age. It would be 41 years before a longer ship was built; not until 1906 did the Lusitania surpass it in tonnage and length. Even by modern standards, the Great Eastern was imposing — it was 53 feet longer than the Argo Merchant, the tanker which ran aground off Nantucket, Massachusetts in late 1976, triggering the largest oil spill in American history.
The ship was the undisputed engineering marvel of its time. In an era when sailing ships still dominated the seas, the Great Eastern was powered by steam, utilizing screw engines and paddle wheels. (Six masts with 6,500 square yards of sail were thrown in for good measure.) It featured innovations like watertight bulkheads, ribless construction, a flat bottom and a double hull, precursors of modern marine design. The iron steamship could carry 4,000 passengers from England to Australia and back without stopping to refuel, doubling the speed of the fastest clipper ship passage.
Yet for all its grandeur and inventiveness, the Great Eastern wound up a monumental failure, a good idea brought to life before its time had come.
According to legend, during the four years it took 2,000 workmen to assemble the ship, a riveter was accidentally sealed alive in one of its airtight compartments, jinxing the ship forever. Whatever the cause, the Great Eastern voyages ended in disaster. Its captains usually lasted only one voyage. (The first drowned, the second had a nervous breakdown, and so on.) The great ship ran down or otherwise damaged 100 other vessels. Despite a tremendous capacity for carrying passengers and cargo (it could have transported the entire Southern cotton crop during the Civil War), eight companies lost fortunes owning it.
The Great Eastern jinx even was said to have claimed its creator, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, felled by a stroke the day before his “great babe” was to make its maiden voyage.
Brunel, known as “The Little Giant,” was, like his greatest achievement, born too soon. The Englishman advocated construction of a Panama canal 60 years before it was attempted. Years before the Monitor and Merrimac inaugurated the age of iron warships, Brunel proposed equipping the British navy with armored navy-boats powered by jets. In 1847, when railroads were still a novelty, Brunel built an “Atmospheric Railway” on which trains used vacuum power to achieve speeds of up to 68 miles per hour. At 21 he was resident engineer for the first tunnel ever built underwater. He built the Great Western, the first successful transatlantic steamship. He built piers, ships, tunnels, 25 railroads, more than a hundred bridges, a prefabricated 1,500-bed military hospital, and the first compartmented freight cars. A man with the will, vision, and ability to achieve great feats of engineering, when it came to the Great Eastern Brunel outdid himself, creating something so far beyond its times it was doomed before it started.
From birth, the Great Eastern’s massive dimensions created problems which overwhelmed contemporary technology. The ship was so large no existing drydock could contain it. Brunel chose to construct it beside the Thames River on the Isle of Dogs near London, but had to position it parallel to the river because the Thames was too narrow at that point to take the ship any other way.
The launch on November 3, 1857 proved a portent of things to come. The ship sat on a complicated maze of wooden cradles, steel rollers and rails, cement, and piles sunk deep into the mud 330 feet from the Thames. The unsuspecting Brunel anticipated a quiet, private launching at which his crews could easily hear his commands. But all the while the Great Eastern was being built it had been the greatest tourist attraction in Europe, and the ship’s owners couldn’t resist selling tickets to its launching. They didn’t bother to inform Brunel. When he made ready to move the 22,000-ton vessel, ten thousand onlookers jammed the site.
After the christening (the owners called the ship “Leviathan” but the name “Great Eastern” stuck), Brunel signaled his men to loosen the restraints. The iron hulk’s first convulsions threw the crowd into an uproar — nearly everyone was enthralled, including the crew of the 60-ton drum intended to regulate the stern’s progress. The ship took up the slack in their chain, the drum handle spun out of control, and five crewmen were tossed high in the air. Two died.
The Great Eastern progressed only a few feet the first day. The heaviest object moved by man up to that time, the know-how simply didn’t exist for launching it. Brunel arranged for a series of barges and tugs to pull the ship toward the river while hydraulic rams pushed from the land side. Chains as thick as a man’s arm repeatedly broke. The rams, designed to withstand 12,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, popped like balloons, six-inch thick iron splitting open and oozing water through its pores.
By the time the Great Eastern slid into the Thames on January 30, 1858 it had cost $5,000 per foot to move it. The Eastern Steam Navigation Company was bankrupt. And while London’s church bells peeled to celebrate the long-awaited event, the ship fouled the lines to several barges which Brunel ordered sunk. The Great Eastern was already piling up victims.
The ship’s interior wasn’t finished for another seven months. Most of the remaining work involved installing the engines and making the ship one of the most lavishly decorated passenger liners ever built, a floating luxury hotel boasting every amenity of the age. Among the ship’s five saloons was one 63 feet long, 47 feet wide, and 14 feet high. The “Grand Saloon” was decorated with fine tapestries, velvet sofas, gold wall panels, silk curtains, and furniture of marble, mahogany, carved teak, and walnut. The funnel cases and airshafts passing through the saloon were covered with mirrored glass inset with arabesques. Balconies encircled the room. The entire scene was illuminated by gilted gas chandeliers and skylights.
The first version of the Grand Saloon didn’t last long.
On September 9, 1858 the Great Eastern was on its maiden voyage in the English Channel when, according to a visiting American, a Captain Comstock, the most “terrible explosion a vessel has ever survived” rocked the ship. One of its five funnels was launched into the air along with bits of wood, glass, gilt, and saloon ornaments. Fifteen sailors were injured; six died. Someone had forgotten to remove the temporary stopcocks blocking the escape of steam from the paddle engine boilers.
Thanks to Brunel’s system of bulkheads the explosion was confined to the paddle engine room and the Grand Saloon, and the ship sailed on. The mishap nearly bankrupted the new owner, The Great Ship Company, which recovered some money by opening the ship to sightseers while it underwent nine months of repairs.
Jaded by a world full of technological wonders, it’s difficult for a modern observer to appreciate the feverish excitement which surrounded the Great Eastern. English ports clamored to be its home. European royalty flocked to see it. People lined the shores whenever it moved. Everything it did was considered news.
Sensing a chance to capitalize on this public frenzy, the ship’s owners abandoned the Australian route for which it was intended and instead sent it across the Atlantic. The idea worked well enough while the ship was a novelty, but ultimately proved a disaster. The ship was built for distance. Other ships, better suited for a short haul and subsidized by government funds, plied the same route and charged lower fares. The Great Eastern soon was overwhelmed by its competitors. And while it dawdled in the transatlantic trade, the 1865 opening of the Suez Canal stripped the great ship of its major advantage over other vessels. The canal dramatically reduced the length of voyages from Europe to the Orient for every ship except the Great Eastern, which was too wide to pass through the locks. It wasn’t until 1869, long after it ceased carrying passengers and was instead being used for laying telegraph cables, that the ship finally made it as far as India.
But in June, 1860, at the height of its acclaim, few could foretell the fate awaiting the newly-restored behemoth as it prepared to sail for America. U.S. ports ardently vied for the privilege of hosting the great ship. Thinking it would receive the vessel, the city of Portland, Maine went so far as to build a special pier to accommodate it. Unfortunately, the company’s directors, a notably inept lot, neglected to mention that their ship was headed for New York.
The U.S. was still almost a year away from civil war, and when the Great Eastern arrived in New York on June 27, 1860, half the city’s one million inhabitants and an armada of small vessels turned out in greeting. Church bells rang. Businesses declared a holiday. Walt Whitman saluted the ship in verse. Crowds on shore followed the ship as it paraded up the Hudson River, turned smartly about, then headed for its dock where, by way of introduction, it tore out several feet of wood before coming to a stop.
Thousands clamored to come aboard, but when the ship was opened to the public several days later, the admission charge was $1, an exorbitant amount for the times. Only 1,500 people came aboard the first day. Realizing their blunder, the ship’s directors quickly lowered the price of admission, and within four weeks attracted 143,764 paying customers.
Flushed with success, the directors decided to send their luxury liner on a cruise down the East Coast. The charge was $10 per person, with food extra.
The cruise was another Great Eastern fiasco. The “food” on board consisted of stale biscuits, salt junk, rotted beef, and fowl which reminded one New York Times reporter of “a leg of the cock that crowed when Peter denied his Master.” Even those delicacies soon ran out. Then there were the accommodations. Despite booking passage for 2,000 people the ship carried beds for only 300, forcing many well-heeled passengers to sleep on deck, where porters rented them mattresses at outrageous prices. When soot rained down all night and stuck to people after a light shower and the fall of morning dew, clean towels quickly went on sale for a dollar. Meanwhile the ship strayed 100 miles off course and wound up late delivering its passengers to the blessed relief of shore.
After several more unendearing incidents, the Great Eastern departed for England with 100 passengers. Harper’s Weekly commented: “In a few days the Great Eastern will take her departure. She has certainly attracted a great deal of attention, more than any other ship that has ever anchored in the Bay of New York. At the same time it would not be correct to say she has been a success, or that we part with her with very much regret.”
The next time the ship crossed the Atlantic it carried 1,100 British soldiers and their families and horses from Liverpool to Quebec. Though the voyage was one of the ship’s few successes, and though it could carry up to 10,000 troops, the British government never used it again as a troop transport or for any other purpose.
When the ship reappeared as a transatlantic passenger liner in September, 1861 it was out only a few days before encountering one of the hurricane-force storms for which the North Atlantic is noted. Heavy seas bent one paddle wheel so it scraped the ship’s iron side. When a lifeboat tore loose from its davits, threatening to foul the starboard paddle wheel, the captain ordered the boat cut loose and maneuvered to let it float clear. The helmsman wasn’t warned of the maneuver — when the screw changed direction the wheel spun out of his control, slamming the oaken rudder against the ship’s 36-ton propeller, which reduced it to a stump. The captain ordered the engines shut down to prevent further damage and the Great Eastern rolled broadside to the storm.
The ship was cast about helplessly for three days and nights. Cargo broke loose. Staterooms flooded. Passengers and crew were injured. Sails hoisted in an attempt to power the ship were torn to shreds by the wind. The Grand Saloon’s skylights broke, allowing waves to crash into the elegant room, bringing a cow and some poultry from the pens on deck. A piano roamed the saloon’s floor. The heating stove smashed the mirrored funnel casing. “Tables and chairs were dancing a hornpipe,” recalled one passenger, “the stove joined most heartily in the fun, and the dancers seemed determined to break down all the nicely turned mahogany columns and bannisters, which snapped like glass.”
As the storm abated, a jury-rigged steering tackle was set in place, allowing the Great Eastern to limp back to England at a speed of four knots. It would take eight months to make the ship seaworthy again.
Then there was the Great Eastern’s visit to New York in August, 1862. With 1,530 passengers and a full cargo giving the ship a deep draught, its skipper, Walter Paton, decided to approach New York through Long Island Sound and Flushing Bay. Entering the bay at about 2 a.m., he turned the ship over to a pilot familiar with the waters. Suddenly they heard a long, loud rumble and the ship heeled over slightly, though not enough to slow its passage. It wasn’t until the next morning, when a diver went down to examine the ship’s bottom, that a gash 85 feet long and 4 feet wide was discovered. The Great Eastern had put an unsuspected Flushing Bay rock on the charts.
The hole in the ship’s bottom was large enough to have sunken any other vessel, but thanks to its double hull the Great Eastern listed at anchor watertight and safe. But once again the ship’s uniqueness worked against it. One of only two flat-bottomed ships in the world (the other, the Great Britain, was built of course by Brunel), it couldn’t be worked on if beached. And except for the place where it was launched, there was no drydock or gridiron in the world where it could be laid up for repairs. So when Captain Paton vetoed steaming home with a hole in the ship’s bottom, a new method of repair had to be invented.
It was left to an American engineer, Edward Renwick, to come up with a solution. Renwick commissioned the building of a huge 60 ton caisson, or cofferdam, which was launched like a ship and towed to Flushing Bay. There it was sunk and positioned over the hole in the Great Eastern’s bottom. Sealing the gunwales with air-filled fire hoses wrapped in carpeting, Renwick pumped water from cofferdam and hull, and riveters descended to repair the iron plates. With the Civil War raging, iron plates were hard to come by, and it wasn’t until January that the great ship finally made it home.
Having bankrupted three companies and lost $5 million as a passenger vessel, the Great Eastern was sold again and chartered by Cyrus Field, an American intent on laying a telegraph cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. Field saw the huge ship as the perfect receptacle for the 2,300 miles of cable needed to link the two continents.
The Grand Saloon was dismantled and the ship fitted out for its new task. The first time out, in the summer of 1865, the cable reached about halfway to Newfoundland when it broke and was lost. The next summer’s cable made it all the way across the Atlantic. The Great Eastern also recovered and completed the cable lost the previous year. The ship returned to England triumphant, winning four knighthoods and two baronetcies for those involved. In his great babe’s moment of glory, no honors were bestowed on the departed Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
The Great Eastern next came to the attention of Napoleon III, who chartered it to carry passengers from America to a “Great Exhibition” he was planning in France. The ship was refitted as a passenger liner for the last time. The Grand Saloon reappeared, and several new dining rooms were added. The ship was overhauled, surveyed, and improved. As per usual, the work took longer than expected, and the French quickly lost money having to put up passengers in Liverpool hotels until the ship was ready to sail for America.
Despite all the work and fanfare, only 191 passengers came across from the U.S., making the French failure with the Great Eastern the most costly of all.
After that the ship was laid up for several years while various schemes for using it came and went. In 1869 it was stripped of its finery for the last time and employed laying more cable across the Atlantic and to Bombay before being laid up again in 1872.
Because no one quite knew what to do with it, the Great Eastern sat idle for the next 12 years. Some suggested using it for meat storage. Others proposed converting it to remove London’s sewage, a function filled by the Thames River in those days. People wanted to equip it as a smallpox hospital; to employ it raising wrecks; to convert it into a poorhouse. It was suggested the Great Eastern be made into a floating hotel off New Orleans, a fate later realized by several of its modern descendants. A socialist offered: “Mankind would be benefitted if the whole of the aristocracy were shipped on board, taken out into the Atlantic, and the vessel scuttled with the whole crew.”
The ship was finally sold in 1885. Before it could begin its intended career as a coaling hulk at Gibraltar, the Great Eastern was chartered to participate in the Liverpool Exhibition of Navigation, Travelling, Commerce and Manufactures. Scraped of 300 tons of barnacles, the rusty, neglected ship barely made it to Liverpool, where it arrived with the advertising slogans of a clothier emblazoned 30 feet high on its sides. Turned into a floating carnival, it was the hit of the exhibition, attracting half a million visitors. The decks were covered with toffee stalls, a photo studio, a weighing machine, a shooting gallery, a steam carousel, a gypsy camp. There were concerts, dances, circuses, vaudeville shows, acrobats swinging among the masts. American-style sawdust bars flourished below decks.
One visitor sadly noted, “We all know that the life of the Great Eastern has been a failure, an arrow that has missed its mark. Anything I should think would be better than the life she is leading. If she cannot pay a breaking-up price, let her be decently buried beneath the wild billows of the great Atlantic. I for one will contribute to her funeral expenses.”
After the Liverpool exhibition, the Great Eastern was cast adrift again. The Gibraltar coaling scheme fell through. Advertised as “the celebrated, world-renowned, magnificent, iron paddle and screw steamship,” recovering 16 cents on the dollar for its owners, the Great Eastern was sold at auction late in 1887. Henry Bath and Sons, the new owners, then proceeded to tear the great old ship apart.