Gigantic Steamer Great Eastern's Short Career But Very Long Story

JPK Huson 1863

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great eastern sandy hook.JPG

Steam ship Great Eastern off Sandy Hook, illustration from NYPL. She was 700 feet long, boasted 6 masts, five funnels, a propeller and two side wheels the size of small mountains. Passengers were carried in luxury which wouldn't have been out of place in Buckingham Palace. Our oceans would not see another ship this size for another four decades- an engineering marvel, we sure did marvel- with reason. Great Eastern also had the worst luck a ship could have without sinking.

" Gigantic " , " mammoth " and " massive ", words commonly used in descriptions of this historic ship still did not quite get there- a ship this size would not be contemplated again for another 4 decades. Steamship Great Eastern, purchased a year earlier by Cunard's newly formed Great Eastern Steamship Company ( from the Great Steamship Company ) played the starring role laying the cable connecting two continents. It was a kind of resurrection for the behemoth whose career from her launch ( launches ), 1857-1858 ( it's a long story ) to the 1864 auction was avidly followed by a fascinated public. A ' 7th Wonder ' by itself, ship was the perfect host to the cable, yet another.

Great Eastern could carry 4,ooo passengers and had ten ' saloons '. She could also board 10,000 troops, if need arose ( it did, although ' only ' around 5,000 embarked ).

great eastern loc dock hammond st NYC.JPG

Docked in NYC, this LoC photo gives some idea how huge Great Eastern was. Initially built to dominate trade, she was by turns a luxury liner, troop ship ( hang on, story coming ), cable layer, casino, music hall and really, an exhibit. So famous, tickets were sold for her ( 1857-1858, story also coming ) launches, plural, she also bankrupted a company, her designer/engineer and stockholders whose names I can't find.

What an awesome ship albeit one whose career during those years was succinctly summed up by a journalist. " A perverse fatality seems to attend everything connected with the Great Eastern. " Indeed.

While 1861 newspapers followed the fate of prisoners captured at Bull Run, stories ran in adjoining columns about yet another misfortune suffered by this famous ship. The largest ship ever built limped into harbor, having lost a propeller and, by the time she docked, both side wheels. She also left behind somewhere in the Atlantic, 5 dead seamen, swept from one of the six famous masts. Quite a few passengers were carried off, broken bones, concussions and lacerations common.

great eastern family crop.jpg

Velvet upholstered furniture and Persian rugs in first class tempted the elite to book passage.....

" Great Eastern " is quite a story about quite an awesome ship. And the genius who designed her. There's simply no way to truncate, summarize or condense her story- posting it in sections. Eye popping, fascinating and by turns tragic, Great Eastern had the worst luck a ship could have without actually sinking. There's a glancing connection to the ACW, too, a little unsurprising given her reign over era seas.

great eastern purfleet.jpg

Here she is in harbor, chose it because the scale highlights this size compared to any, other ship- or anything afloat not an island.

Bear with the thread- it's a story as large as the ship. Hate to leave it here, worse, hate to not do it justice.

great eastern loc.JPG
 

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JPK Huson 1863

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I have had a German card kit of her displayed for many years now in three successive homes.

You naval experts will find this old hat, as it were, I know. Had heard of the ship but really, only seemed familiar because of the cable. Had no idea how unique was this ship or how advanced in ship building- the whole story is crazy good, gee whiz. We don't seem very good on this side of the Pond at filling in the blanks on this stuff.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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So jumping ahead, from her year-long launch, Great Eastern's use as a troop ship is part of a ' what if ' that could have flattened this country.


Prince Albert could be considered a casualty of the American Civil War. Talk about rising to the occasion. His unexpected prowess wielding olive branches prevented threatened war on yet another front. Docs are still arguing Albert’s cause of death- but we may have been responsible. The Trent Affair was a tension wrought straw, breaking the overworked Duke’s already fragile health.

Without Albert’s intervention we’d have had our hands full and pretty darn quickly. While the Trent Affair roiled tempers, over 5,000 British troops were already encamped this side of The Pond. Canada had its hands full too- their 1861 Fenian uprising gave the Monarchy another pain in the colonies. A troopship- this largest ship ever on the planet-packed off enough soldiers to quell those darn Irish. Great Eastern swallowed red coated men by the score, like so many Jonah’s going to sea in a stomach large enough to cough up a small town. Boy, we'd have been in trouble.

great east 1a.jpg

From an 1859, public access book- ' To walk around the deck exceeds a mile "

great east 1b.jpg

" Will carry 10,000 troops "
" 4 decks, 10 boilers "
Draught of water 20 feet & when laden 30 feet " ( specs elsewhere state 39 feet? )

692 feet long, 83 wide and nearly 60 in depth.

Brunel's design wouldn't be used again for decades. Remember the ' unsinkable ' Titanic all the way into another century? She was supposedly unsinkable because she had watertight compartments, a gazillion of the. Problem there was, they had no ' top '. Taking on water was like filling an ice cube tray. Brunel's design prevented this, what's baffling is his engineering was history by the time Titanic was built.

Brunel also employed a double hull! It's mandatory in 2018 but at the time unheard of. All that metal on such a massive scale meant massive rivets, too. I ' think ' the team working on rivets could only manage 10 a day, can't find the actual size of one- love to see one from the Great Eastern.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel was already a ' name ' ( and with a name like I. Kingdom Brunel what else was the man destined to be but a genius? ), blazing trails in railroads and other aspects of British transportation. It took some selling- 19 million in American dollars ( no idea exchange rate to pounds in 1854 ), projected. She'd have some earning to do for investors- by launch the cost had nearly doubled.

Before Great Eastern was launch, largest ships ( also British ) were Great Western, 1837 ( with the name I. Kingdom Brunel attached at 236 feet. Then-

Great Western, 236 feet
Duke of Wellington, 240 feet
British Queen, 275
Great Britain, 322
Himalaya, 370
Persia, 390

At nearly 700 feet, plans for the Great Eastern were preposterous. Well, ship was originally to be Leviathan, the Bibilical, ship crushing sea monster. You could see why! Ship was nearly mythical when done, plans seemed just crazy.

great eastern stern pic.jpg


Stern view, Thames yard. Great Eastern was built sideways from water- since nothing of this size had been attempted engineers at least knew the usual head-long plunge would not be possible. Plan was to slip her sideways into the river. It worked- although took into the next year ( November, 1857-Jan., 1858 ) to launch even with this innovation.
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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From original launch date of 3rd of November, 1857 to the 28th, Great Eastern's progress was around 25 feet. Brunel was soundly castigated as incompetent but really, engineers were dealing with weights never attempted using what was then new technology. So the thousands flocking to watch November 3rd, 1857 were to re-purchase tickets in January, 1858.

It would be remembered, this first piece of misfortune.

great eastern launch clip.JPG
Her launch although which isn't identified- could be part of November's attempt or January 31st's, few months later.
Those paddlewheels, btw- 56 feet in diameter.

When the chains were cast off, flames were flung from them, so great a weight passed through the links.

First voyage, another disaster struck- it would have sunk any ship less beautifully constructed. This short account is from an era book published by the company, makes a little light of an accident that cost lives.
great eastern explosion.JPG
.
Again, Brunel ( and Russell, builder ) built Great Eastern so well, no other ship afloat would have withstood the explosion without yet more loss of life, sunk or badly crippled. Steam ship disasters were common. The year after Great Eastern changed hands at auction, the Sultana claimed 1800 lives.

There's more- and more after that. Great Eastern, vastly over budget with a costly time delay in launching wasn't through its first trip before this disaster. Just the beginning. Hate to create a shorter thread than this crazy amazing piece of history deserves, will continue tomorrow.
 

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