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Newfoundland & Labrador's Maritime Heritage

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SS Great Eastern: The iron monster that connected continents


Painting of the Great Eastern

A painting of SS Great Eastern about 1861

It must have been a sight to behold in Heart's Content on that foggy morning of July 27 in 1866 when the world's largest steamship loomed through the mist and crept into the harbour. The fog had been so thick that the famous SS Great Eastern had missed the harbour entrance on her first try. When the huge vessel eventually anchored about a mile off the main wharf in the deep inlet on Trinity Bay's south side, it was the end of a voyage of 2,300 nautical miles from Valentia Island on the west coast of Ireland bringing the first successfully laid undersea telegraph cable connecting both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Five times larger than the biggest ships of her day, the Great Eastern was said to be the only one with capacity to carry the 5,000 tonnes of galvanized cable, paying it out into the ocean depths all the way to Newfoundland. Others had failed to do it in earlier attempts, including one just the year before by the Great Eastern when the cable was lost in the mid-Atlantic. The steamer's success as a cable-layer was the high spot in her otherwise disappointing career.

The ship was not only enormous, it was unorthodox. It was the creation of a brilliant British engineer named Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He had designed and built two other more conventional vessels, the Great Western and Great Britain (now being restored in Bristol, England), and wanted to produce a bigger ship to carry passengers and freight between Britain and Australia. This one, however, must be capable of carrying enough coal for the entire trip to avoid refuelling stops. Brunel wanted his creation to be equipped for all eventualities and he built in some interesting innovations.

He decided on three methods of propulsion in the one ship. She would be steam powered, with two oscillating engines. One, of 3,400 horsepower, would drive the conventional side paddlewheels, while the other at 4,900 hp. turned a single propeller at her stern. Ten boilers were fed by 100 coal furnaces. She also carried 18,148 square feet (1,688 square metres) of sails on six masts, each named for a day of the week. (But it was discovered that the sails could not be used while the engines were running due to the risk of sparks from the ship's five funnels igniting the canvas.) Her top speed was 13.5 knots. She would have capacity for 596 cabin passengers and 2,400 in steerage.

Brunel applied his experience in successfully building bridges and railways to his new vessel, and was one of the first to realize the potential of building ships of great size. He built her of iron, and gave her a double bottom and sides with a space of nearly three feet (1m) between. She had 12 watertight compartments, and gas lighting in her accommodations. These were all "firsts" for the industry. The result was an enormous vessel of 22,500 tons displacement, 693 feet (211 metres) long, 120 ft. (37 m) of beam and nearly 26 ft.(8m) of draught.

Great Eastern in Heart's Content

Great Eastern in Heart's Content, 1866, with smaller vessels alongside.

She wasn't a pretty ship. There was no curve to her sheer or rake to her upperworks. Her five 100-foot (30.5 m) smokestacks stood straight up from her deck, as did her six towering masts. Her stem plunged vertically into the water, although the bow did round off below the waterline. Up to the time of her launching at Millwall on the Thames River her name was SS Leviathan. From design to launching took Brunel five years.

Finally, on Nov. 3, 1857, the launch was begun. Crowds in the thousands lined the riverbanks to watch the world's largest ship slide into her new domain, but the iron monster only moved a few inches. It was just as well because experts later figured, if the launch had gone as planned, a huge wave would have flooded the shore and drowned many of the spectators. Eventually, on Jan. 13, 1858, after great efforts and a very high tide the ship was at last afloat.

The costs of the ship to that stage bankrupted her owners. After her purchase by the Great Ship Company and being renamed Great Eastern, she was destined for the trans-Atlantic passenger trade. At last in September, 1859, she was ready for sea trials but carelessness caused one of her boilers to explode. The shock was said to have caused the heart attack from which Brunel died several days later.

The following June SS Great Eastern was repaired and ready for her maiden voyage to New York, but instead of catering to her capacity of nearly 3,000 passengers she departed with a mere 38. Among them was the famed French novelist Jules Verne who used the experience in his book "The Floating City." Mishaps plagued the big ship and her reputation suffered. This lack of popularity with the travelling public broke her new owners in 1863, and that was her end as a passenger liner although she did serve well as a troop carrier during her career.

It was, however, the start of her successful phase as a cable-layer. After rebuild in Sheerness the Great Eastern entered this service, and from 1865 to 1874 laid both the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable to Newfoundland and a cable from Suez, Egypt, to Bombay, India. More efficient cable-laying ships eventually put her out of business, and she was idle until 1886. That year one D. Lewis saw her potential as a mammoth floating exhibition hall capable of sailing the world. He chartered her but that pipedream lasted only about a year, and her days became numbered as she was sold to ship-breakers in Birkenhead at Liverpool. As she was being taken apart over a three-year period, scrapping crews made a grisly discovery. Between her double hulls they found two human skeletons, evidently the remains of shipyard workers entombed by mistake during her construction three decades earlier.

When the Great Eastern landed the first cable at Heart's Content in 1866, it was the start of a century-long phase for that community as a telegraph station. Twice more, in 1873 and 1874 the giant iron ship brought a total of five cables to the Trinity Bay outport. That first time she was greeted by thousands of visitors, bands playing and flags flying at Heart's Content. Today, the station and its equipment are maintained by the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador as a museum.

As for the iron monster that made it possible, the SS Great Eastern, huge, ugly and ungainly as she was, was not surpassed in size by other ships for another 50 years.

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