I like to run along the Hudson River. I enter the park around 84th St., where sailboats moored offshore wait quietly, and stray kayakers bob in the waves, trying to manage the wakes left by the tugboats heading north towards the George Washington Bridge. A little further down is a dock with slips for houseboats, peculiar in their mix of land and sea, with flowers in window boxes, satellite dishes, sailor cats stalking the rails and dogs waiting on deck to get out to the park where they can run and bark and chase the squirrels.
Around 68th Street there is a carefully landscaped, very civilized park, but just beyond it are my favorite things, two giant crumbling iron structures, slowly rusting and sinking into the river. I think they’re where Doc Ock hid out in Spiderman 2. They’re beautiful, strange as that may sound.
Once you get past the Sanitation Truck Depot at 59th Street (wave to the workers there), the river is lined with piers, leftover from days when shipping was a much bigger part of the city. They’re still busy but in different ways. There is the cruise ship terminal, with people embarking and disembarking, the latter looking confused and not sure where to go or what to do next. Then there is the empty slip around 46th Street, waiting for the Intrepid to come back, and the ferry terminals around 39th Street.
Once you get past there, almost all the piers have been developed into some sort of green or recreational space, particularly way down in the West Village and Soho. They have grass and places for kids to play. I think one even has a tiny miniature golf course.
Around 16th Street, though, there is still one empty pier, though, a flat concrete slab extending far out into the river, guarded along the path with a giant heavy iron gate. A few years ago a pop-up museum spent the summer there. Sometimes there are concerts, occasionally a wedding. I never paid much attention to it until one day I looked up and saw the ghostly outlines of some stenciled words at the top of the gate: Cunard and White Star.
So I rushed home and did a little research and found that Pier 59 had indeed been one of a group of piers built for the giant luxury liners of the late 19th-early 20th century. The Titanic would have docked at Pier 59. Instead, the Carpathia, rescuer of the Titanic, paused there only a moment to dutifully drop off the Titanic’s lifeboats (White Star property) and then went down to Pier 54, their own landing, where their own passengers and the Titanic survivors disembarked to a media frenzy. History is found in unexpected places.
I had been thinking that I would like to read a book about the history of steamships (again, I realize I am a little odd). Poking around in the library one day, I found Stephen Fox’s Transatlantic, the story of the steamship from the bare beginnings to the super-sized floating hotels that cross oceans now without anyone giving much thought to how and why.
I didn’t have high expectations for this book. I thought it would probably be of the dreaded dull but informative type. I couldn’t have been more wrong, though.
The complete opposite of the last book I wrote about, Fox’s work is proof of what a difference a really skilled writer can make with any kind of material. This isn’t an event history, with a tight focus on one small moment, but a story that stretches over about one hundred years, covering a wide variety of topics and subtopics that could easily turn into a dull, dry mess in the hands of someone less sure.
There’s an awful lot in this book. Fox sets the scene by telling about the miseries of transatlantic travel on the early sailing packets. The ships had few luxuries, and at the mercy of wind and waves were unreliable at best and deadly at worst. We take for granted now the idea that you travel by booking a departure time and arrive at your destination at a set time (airline weather and delays aside, of course). In the days of the transatlantic sailing ships, though, travelers arrived at a port without a set time to leave; instead they just had to wait until the conditions were right. Once at sea, they might find themselves blown off course in a storm or becalmed in the middle of the ocean, waiting for a fresh breeze. A crossing could last anywhere from twenty-one days to thirty days to forty-five days. And of course there was no ship to shore communication. Sometimes a ship might just never arrive. Steamships changed all that. Suddenly people could travel on schedule, and that was important in a world that was already changing from the slow rhythms of the agrarian calendar to the busy industrial clock.
Fox covers the early development of the steam engine and how that came to be used on steamships on rivers. Robert Fulton tends to get a lot of the credit for the “first” paddle wheel steamship, but in reality there were a lot of people working on the idea in stages, and in all likelihood, Fulton probably stole his design from a Scottish engineer named William Symington (think back to those pictures of Fulton in your fourth grade social studies textbook—he did look rather sly, didn’t he?).
The first real attempt at a transatlantic steamship crossing came courtesy of a group led by the brilliant architect Isambard King Brunel. I went to school for a year at Bristol University in southwest England, Brunel’s home base, and got to know Brunel’s gorgeous Temple Mead train station quite well, also his lovely Clifton Suspension Bridge. (sigh) Brunel wasn’t heavily involved in the building of the ship called the Great Western after his railroad line, but left that to others more experienced in ship building (Brunel had a bigger hand in other later, more ambitious—perhaps recklessly ambitious—ships). The Great Western made its first transatlantic crossing in record time, but soon was overshadowed by the great figure of shipping, the cautious Canadian, Sam Cunard.
Cunard’s steamship line, beginning with the Britannia, dominated transatlantic travel. They built a reputation for safety, with less flashy accoutrements, a little less speed, and less willingness to adopt new innovations. But, aside from a few minor accidents that were quietly brushed aside, they could brag that they did not experience the disasters and loss of life that some of the grander, more ambitious ships suffered.
Like I said, this is a really big topic, but what Fox does really, really well, is to shift between the technical and the personal. He details the advances in the steamships, from the paddle wheel to the screw propeller, from wood to iron to steel, piston to turbine. But then just when you’ve had enough of that, he goes into an account of a typical mid-19th century voyage—what the guests in each class, as well as captains, sailors, and engineers, would have experienced. He neatly incorporates general information, diary entries and letters, without going overboard and creating a quote fest. Fox covers business and international rivalries, then jumps from there to stories of disasters—and really, there are some stories in here, notably the sinking of the White Star line's Atlantic, where the crew basically shoved passengers out of the way and took the lifeboats for themselves. Not one of the women and children on board survived, but a large percentage of the crew did. And sadly, this was not the last time a disaster at sea resulted in this type of reaction and this type of casualty list.
My only quarrel with Fox is that with the amount of technical architectural and engineering information in this book, it could have used some diagrams. There are two great photo sections with pictures of the grand interiors of some of the great ships, but I would have liked to have a better idea of the design and internal workings of the whole ships. But this is only a small complaint. In the end, I learned a lot from this book and found it very readable and enjoyable, a nice mix, as I said of the informational and anecdotal. I couldn’t ask for much more and am very glad I found it.
P.S. The show went well tonight.