Great Eastern Strikes Rocks Off Montauk

photo by Brian Pope
photo by Brian Pope

At 2 o’clock in the morning of August 17, 1862, an enormous oceangoing passenger ship, the largest ship in the world by far at the time, struck an underwater rock off Montauk, putting a gash in its side 83 feet long and 9 feet wide. This was half a century before the Titanic went down. And the gash was 60 times the area of the Titanic’s damage. But this ship, the Great Eastern, did not go down. This ship just rolled a bit to port and then stayed that way for the rest of its trip into New York.

When the ship hit, members of the crew felt the tremor and subsequent list, slight as it was. They woke the captain. Already on board at that time was a pilot, a man from the Port of New York who had arrived to guide the great ship in. He believed the ship had brushed up against the “North East Rips,” underground rocks that were too deep to matter for other ships. Now, because there was no leak, it was decided to continue on as if nothing happened. They didn’t have far to go.

Soon, the 1,530 passengers, most of whom were in their cabins asleep when the accident happened were able to see the big city of New York in front of them to which they would soon disembark.

Of course, the crew didn’t know about the enormous size of the gash either until they arrived in port. Divers went down. They came up amazed at what they saw. This would have to be repaired before the ship could move on. There was, however, no hauling yard big enough to take the ship out of the water. Repairs would have to be made where she sat, through some novel method not yet thought up. Eventually, someone came up with the idea to slide a giant steel plate down over the gash, pull it with chains tight to the side, and then repair the damage from the inside. It took three months.

As this is the 150th anniversary year of this extraordinary accident, I thought it a good idea to recount the full story of this incident. It is probably true that if a 700-foot-long ship—more than twice the size of any ship built before it—were to have gone down with 1,500 passengers, plus crew, off Montauk, it would surely have affected Montauk, inhabited by a few settlers and Indians at that time, to serve as a first landing for survivors. It probably would have changed how we think of Montauk today. And surely, when the 880-foot-long Titanic sank half a century later with the loss of 1,502 lives, it would just have been a repeat of the catastrophe of the Great Eastern years before.

The Great Eastern came about because there was a pressing need to transport vast numbers of immigrants to the New World. Before the Great Eastern, the dominant oceangoing vessels were clippers a fraction of the number of feet in length. They could transport much fewer people at a time.

One could not imagine a more remarkable set of plans for a ship in 1852 when they were shown to the Eastern Steam Navigation Company by the mechanical engineer Islambard Kingdom Brunel. This ship, named the Great Eastern after the company that would build it, could hold 4,000 passengers. It would be powered by giant paddlewheels on both sides about 56 feet high, by a giant boat screw at the stern, and by six masts that could hoist up as much as 18,150 square feet of sail. Steam to power the screw and the paddlewheels would be provided by five steam boilers. She would be able to sail around the world if necessary, without stopping.
A brilliant ship builder named J. Scott Russell believed the ship could be built from these plans, and, having been shown them by Brunel, had revised them and been at the meeting with the Eastern Steam Navigation Company. Though nothing like this had ever been proposed before, both Brunel and, more importantly, Russell, felt it could be done. The ship could, Russell said, cross the Atlantic at 14 knots. It would take only nine or 10 days.

It took seven years to finance, find a shipyard large enough to build it and then bring the project through to launch. Isambard Kingdom Brunel died the year after it was launched. Russell went bankrupt before the ship was finished.

A date was set for the launch. It was advertised. Thousands went down to the yard to watch. But the cradles and cranes were not yet completed when the day came. The ship company decided to go ahead anyway. They’d use steam-driven winches and rams and launch it sideway into the sea. But try as they might, the winches and rams could not budge the ship. It was simply too heavy. Two weeks later the launch was tried again with bigger rams. And when that failed, they ordered not only bigger cams but more of them. She still failed to move. Finally, on January 31, 1858 at 1:42 p.m., with even more powerful hydraulic rams and with fewer people present, the Great Eastern began to slide. In front of everyone, Henrietta Hope, the daughter of one of the main backers of the ship, broke a bottle of champagne on her bow and said, “I christen thee Leviathan,” (but since many people continued to call it the Great Eastern, its name was changed back to that.) And so the Great Eastern slid, sideways, down the ways.

A “fitting out” with dignitaries on board took place as her maiden voyage. All three modes of propulsion were tested. The paddlewheels turned, the screw pushed and the hot steam came out the smokestacks and set fire to the sails, which had to be brought down. Then, out in the English Channel about to come back to port, a huge explosion rocked the ship. Smokestack Number Four flew straight up and came down to splash into the sea. Below it, in the deck, was a gaping hole. Although five crewmen down below died and a sixth died after being thrown overboard, the ship did not sink. Later, an investigation determined that a steam valve had been turned off when it was supposed to have been left on. The pressure backed up. That boiler blew.

During the next three years, the Great Eastern made several round-trips to New York City and one to Quebec, with as many as 2,000 people on board and at times as few as 35 paying passengers which were, in any case, dutifully served by the 418 member crew.

The Quebec trip brought the threat of a lawsuit because Portland, Maine was not being utilized as the ship’s port of call, as has been previously agreed upon. The Grand Truck Railroad Company was even persuaded to build a special jetty to accommodate the ship in Portland, which has a sufficiently large harbor.

There were other disasters. One voyage was delayed for a day because on the morning of the departure the captain found much of the crew drunk. On another day, with the Great Eastern anchored offshore and launches taking the passengers out to it, one of the launches crashed onto a rock. All the passengers and their luggage had to be rescued. On still another occasion, the Great Eastern simply ran over a small sailing ship while making the crossing. On one crossing, the captain took a course to New York not planned, which resulted in the journey’s being 10 days, not nine. And another time, one of the paddlewheels jammed up and would not function. The trip was completed under stern screw power.

One voyage, in 1861, nearly resulted in the loss of the ship. On its way from England to New York City, a big storm broke off the right paddlewheel, bashed the left one against the hull, smashing it, and broke part of a rudder, leaving the rest of the rudder banging against the screw whenever it was started up. Without either of those two methods of propulsion, the captain raised some sails, but they were blown apart by the wind. And so, with all three modes of propulsion now compromised, he just drifted for the next three days. And nobody seemed the wiser.

Eventually, the passengers formed a committee to find out what had gone wrong, and when they were told about it, a passenger  who was a trained engineer worked with the captain to create a jury-rig with divers going underwater with chains to hold the remains of the rudder away from the screw. In this way, the captain was able to restart the engine powering the screw, and with the stub of the rudder, finally able to regain some semblance of control. The Great Eastern limped to the nearest landfall, which was Ireland. But there the harbormaster would not let it land at a dock because it was so wobbly. It dropped anchor, and launches came out to get everybody.

The following year was the one where the Great Eastern hit the rock off Montauk and then staggered into New York Harbor.
After this, many people did not feel particularly comfortable in traveling as passengers on the Great Eastern. She did make three more round trips, mostly carrying freight. But the finances of the Eastern Steamship Company were getting worse and worse because of her.

In 1864, with the ship just five years old, the Great Eastern was offered up at auction for just 50,000 pounds. If nobody wanted her, she would be broken up as scrap. Nobody wanted her. She did get a bid of 20,000 pounds, however, and after some debate the steamship company sold her to a new company that had, in advance, signed an important contract that would get her back on the Transatlantic Route.

At this time, numerous attempts had been made to lay an underwater cable across the Atlantic. All had failed. With a ship this size, however, giant spools of cable could be mounted on deck. Thus it was that the new owners, with a contract signed to do this, tore out the staterooms and elaborate dining and living rooms to make room for these enormous spools. The Great Eastern then became, in 1864, the first ship to successfully lay a transatlantic cable, and then in the next few years, many more, as far away as India.

After the work laying cable was done, the Great Eastern was brought back to the dock in England to pass her final days. For a number of years she served as a concert hall and gymnasium. And then she was rented out to a department store, which, as a promotion, gave rides on her up and down the Thames.

In 1889, her work done—and the ship STILL the largest in the world—the Great Eastern was broken up as scrap by the Henry Bath & Son Ltd. on the River Mersey.

Today, one of her masts stands as a flagpole at one end of the Anfield grounds for the Liverpool Football Club. The giant funnel that blew off it when she was undergoing sea trials is now at the SS Great Britain Museum. Some of the furniture from the great ship is also there.

As for Montauk, the underwater rocks that caused the gash now have a name. They are known on charts as the Great Eastern Rocks.
This is a little known story of great importance I think. And its 150th anniversary was this year.

The Montauk Lighthouse recently aquired an exact eight-foot steel model of the “Great Eastern.” You can view it at

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