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Other name: Cleopatra
Sisters: Menominee, Manitou, Mesaba, Marquette
Builder: Earle's Shipbuilding and Engineering Co., Hull
Launched April 6, 1898; maiden voyage July 31, 1898; wrecked October 14, 1898
Hull: length 475'; beam 52'; 6,889 tons; 2 steel decks; 8 watertight bulkheads
Power: single screw; triple expansion engine by builder with cylinders of 32", 54", and 90" diameter, stroke 66," rated at 5,000 I.H.P.
2 double ended and one single ended boilers fitted with Howden draft and operating at 200 p.s.i.
Registered in Hull; official number 109043
The Mohegan was built originally for the Wilson & Furness-Leyland Line's New York service as the Cleopatra. She had stalls for 700 cattle and "an improved system of sanitation rendering the cattle carrying quite free from annoyance to passengers." She was one of five new sister ships purchased from the Wilson & Furness-Leyland Line for £140,000 each to replace vessels bought by the U. S. government for use as transports in the Spanish-American War. The Cleopatra, the only one of these ships built in Hull, was the youngest of the sisters and she was still in her builder's yard when she changed hands.
Described by the Hull Daily Mail as "the longest vessel ever built at Hull" the Cleopatra boasted "a large handsome dining saloon in polished oak with carved panels and pilasters being situated under the bridge deck" and, "In the house are a large music room, decorated in ivory colour and gold, a smoking room in polished oak and a considerable number of State rooms." Her maiden voyage did not go well because she had major problems with her boilers and pumps. She broke down completely on several occasions and reportedly her plumbing was also defective and some state rooms flooded. Passengers protested to the line about the condition of the vessel, but signed a testimonial to "the splendid conduct of the officers and crew." The Cleopatra eventually reached New York on August 12 and was sent back three days later for repairs in England without taking on any passengers.
These extensive repairs delayed Cleopatra's second voyage for two months. Among those inconvenienced were Julia and Lemuel Potwin, whose journal (412 KB PDF file) records that they had booked to sail home on Cleopatra, but because she was still undergoing repairs they had to spend an additional week in London (for which they were rather grateful) and sailed instead on her sister Victoria. Meanwhile all five of the ex- Wilson & Furness-Leyland Line ships had been renamed in September to conform to the line's house style. The Cleopatra became the Mohegan. She was sent for a fresh set of trials in the North Sea and was pronounced satisfactory. She was then rigorously reinspected by the Board of Trade and was issued with a new certificate. Lloyds of London classified her "100 A1."
The Mohegan sailed on her second voyage on October 13, 1898 carrying 97 crew, 6 cattlemen, 1 horseman and 1,286 tons of general cargo. She collected 53 passengers at Gravesend and dropped her Trinity House pilot at Dover at 7:30 p.m. A letter to the Engineering Superintendent (3,213 KB PDF file) from Assistant Engineer William Kinley probably came ashore when the pilot left the ship at 7:55. In the letter Kinley reported minor teething troubles but no major issues with the ship other than a shortage of steam caused by the new team of firemen not being "up to the mark." From Dover the Mohegan steamed down the channel heading for New York. But when making a routine alteration to her course as she hugged the coast of Cornwall late the following afternoon she inexplicably followed the wrong bearing. Instead of heading for the clear water south of the Lizard Peninsula she steamed directly towards the coast and then at almost the last moment, presumably as the mistake was perceived on board, turned to the south. Tragically, while her new course avoided the shore it also led her directly onto the most dangerous rocks in the area.
As dinner was being served the ship's engine was stopped but almost simultaneously she hit the notorious rock Maen Voes and the impact tore off her rudder. Momentum then carried her rapidly forwards 450 feet onto the Manacles, the infamous granite reef beyond. According to one of the survivors, "suddenly there was an awful sound as though the ships bottom was being torn out." The ship developed a severe list and sank in about 12 minutes at dusk as a gale was blowing. She carried more than enough lifeboats for everyone on board but it proved extremely difficult to launch them. Of the two boats successfully lowered one overturned and the other was swamped. Some passengers and crew climbed into the rigging but most went to the stern, from where they were soon washed overboard. The coxswain of the nearby lifeboat at Porthoustock had seen the Mohegan approach and turn towards the Manacles, and called his crew out before the ship struck, but it was a long row to the site of the wreck. The Porthoustock lifeboat rescued most of the 50 passengers and crew saved that night, but 106 people, most of them passengers, died in the disaster (The Mohegan's Passengers and Crew). The disaster was widely covered in the press (Dundee Courier, Monday October 17, 1898, for example) and was later commemorated by the infamous Scottish tragedian William McGonagall with a poem that was bad even by his standards.
This was by far the greatest disaster in the history of the Atlantic Transport Line, and the Board of Trade held an official inquiry in London which determined that the cause was "that a wrong course W. by N. .was steered after passing the Eddystone, at 4.17 p.m." It seems likely that Captain Griffiths made navigational errors that were not recognized or acted upon until it was too late, but with Captain Griffiths and all of the navigating officers dead it was not possible to ascertain the cause of the accident. Conspiracy theories about the Mohegan can be traced back to within weeks of the disaster but don't bear examination. The Atlantic Transport Line clearly held Griffiths their most senior captain in high regard and there is no evidence of any dispute between them. And Griffiths could not benefit from any insurance payout. Furthermore, his ship had been insured for £28,000 less than had been had been paid for her. (To reduce its insurance costs the Atlantic Transport Line maintained a "special insurance fund,' and "ran a large risk" on each of its vessels.)
Today what is left of the wreck is very popular with divers because it is accessible, interesting, and still occasionally yields crockery and brass portholes.
Sources: The Atlantic Transport Line, 1881-1931; The Ships List; shipwreckcharlestown.com; The Mohegan, 1898-1998, Terry Moyle, Kent, 1998; st-keverne.com; Passenger Ships of the World Past and Present, Eugene W. Smith, Massachusetts, 1977; Fourteen Months Abroad, Julia Hedges Potwin, published privately, Cleveland, Ohio, 1911; The New York Times, October 16, 1898; October 30, 1898, November 8, 1898
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