Monday, September 10, 2012

Disaster Off Martha's Vineyard: The Sinking of the City of Columbus by Thomas Dresser

Why I read it: Good old-fashioned local maritime history.

Summary: The story of an early morning disaster, the saving of lives and the search for blame.

My Thoughts: Progress.

The story of the 19th century was progress, from horsepower to small engines, from handwritten letters to telephone calls, from walking long distances or riding in stagecoaches to railroads opening up the west. From sail to steam.

It was this latter transition that proved to be the most deadly of all the new technologies. More power meant bigger vessels, which could carry more people. And when those ships went down, more people died than had with the shipwrecks of old.

It must have been a devastating night, both aboard and ashore, the night the City of Columbus struck the Devil's Bridge off Martha's Vineyard. In years to come, it would look paltry; "only" 103 people died, about a tenth of the number killed on Titanic 28 years later. But carry the number out exponentially - the number of family members and friends grieving for the lost, the number of Vineyarders who found dead bodies on the beach and how it affected their lives, even the people who read the grisly details in the newspapers. The tragedy reached many more than just the 103 killed.

Dresser breaks down the story for us, feeding us the information in bits: The Ship, The Crew, The Rescue, The Bodies. He even places us, through a second-person narrative, in the mind of a passenger at the time the ship strikes the underwater ledge. And, like a good historian, he follows the story to its end, through the culpability hearings, to the rediscovery of the shipwreck a century later.

Yes, it is a Martha's Vineyard tale, but it's a greater 19th century story as well, of accepting the consequences of the riskiness of new technology.

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