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From the deep

4 May 2010 by stepheng

model of a large sailing ship

Indian Queen ship model

I find sea mysteries completely absorbing because of their finality – a ship disappearing without trace always leaves so many unanswered questions.

I only learnt about this particular disappearance recently and was fascinated by the way the sea gave up its secret after so many years.

It was a mystery that took 135 years to solve – the disappearance of the emigrant paddle steamer Pacific and almost 200 passengers and crew on a voyage from Liverpool to New York. One of the largest, fastest and most well-appointed ships of her day she vanished after sailing on 23 January 1856.

Commanded by Captain Asa Eldridge, she was one of three sister ships operated by the American Collins Line and designed to outclass its main rival – British-owned Cunard.

Captain Eldridge was renowned as a great skipper. Two years before he disappeared he made his lasting reputation sailing the clipper Red Jacket on her maiden voyage between New York and Liverpool.

She did this in a record time of 13 days and one hour – catching up with a steamer that had started out two days earlier. This transatlantic sailing record has never been broken and Red Jacket is one of the seven fastest sailing ships in history.  

This was the era when people took great interest in ships’ performances and thousands of people lined the Liverpool waterfront to see Red Jacket’s arrival.

Captain Eldridge did not have great experience of steamers when he took command of the 2,707-ton Pacific built in 1849. When she failed to arrive at New York, other ships searched for her in vain. There was no trace of the Pacific or her 45 passengers and 141 crew.

There the story may have ended but for a chance discovery by divers in 1991. They located the bow section of the ship a few miles off Anglesey – only about 60 miles from Liverpool.

After so long it was impossible to discover what had sent the Pacific to the bottom so suddenly without leaving any wreckage or bodies. The most likely explanation is a catastrophic accident, such as a boiler explosion, that made the 281-foot long ship sink like a stone.

In Merseyside Maritime Museum’s emigration gallery there are many exhibits from this era of the Victorian emigrant trade.

A stunning picture model depicts the steamer Great Britain in the River Mersey about 1857 featuring docks bristling with ship masts.

Other contemporary emigrant ship models are the Black Ball sailing ships Marco Polo built in 1851 and the Indian Queen of 1852 (pictured).
 
A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).

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