PS Connaught — Captain Robert Leitch
On the 25th. September 1860 the paddle steamer PS Connaught departed Galway under the command of 42 year old Captain Robert Leitch. She was bound for Boston with a stopover in St. John’s, Newfoundland. This was her second voyage and was carrying 50 first class passengers, 417 steerage passengers, a crew of 124 and a cargo of textiles. She also carried international mail under contract to Royal Mail. At the stopover at St. John’s she picked up some additional passengers and a consignment of 10,000 sterling gold coins, believed to be for the future King Edward V11 on a visit to Canada and America at the time. On the evening of the 6th. the Connaught got caught in a storm and sprung a leak about 150 miles from Boston. The engine rooms were flooded, extinguishing the furnaces, causing the engines to die. On the morning of Sunday 7th., in addition to the leak, a fire broke out below deck. It began to spread rapidly throughout the ship. Captain Leitch gave the order to launch the lifeboats and prepare to abandon ship. there was a shortage of lifeboats on board, which was common at the time. Captain Leitch knew that unless a passing ship miraculously appeared most, if not all, passengers would either burn to death or drown in the turbid waters of the Atlantic Ocean. At about midday on Sunday 7th two sailing ships were spotted in the distance, one of them was heading towards them. The name of the ship was the Minnie Schiffer.
On the 21st. April, 1860 a special train crowded with passengers, departed Newcastle-Upon -Tyne to a ship yard in Jarrow to join thousands of others to witness the launch of the paddle steamer the PS Connaught. She was the largest ship afloat at the time with the exception of the Great Eastern. She was built by Palmer and Co. of Jarrow for the Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company, colloquially known as The Galway Line. A new design and the latest technology went into her construction. Built of iron, She was 380ft. long with a 40ft. beam (width). She had a capacity to carry 800 passengers and crew. At her centre were two massive paddlewheels three stories tall. She was powered by three 800 horsepower engines capable of reaching a speed of 20 miles per hour. She also carried two masts with sails. The Connaught was one of the first ships to have a ‘waveline’ hull, a design that tapered to an unusually narrow bow. This enabled her to cut smoothly through the waves creating a sleek, elegant, modern look. The main deck (promenade) and combings were made of solid teak “beautifully carved and polished.” She boasted spectacular framed skylights “stained most gracefully”. The saloons and first class cabins had walnut and maple panelling “of the most exquisite workmanship.” The cabins were adorned with paintings depicting scenes of the Irish countryside. Throughout the ship “there were diamond-cut glass doorknobs, velvet couches and burnished gold moulding.” The lavishly furnished dining lounge could seat over 200 diners in luxury.
In 2014 a salvage company discovered the wreck of the Connaught. The 10,000 gold coins were still on board. They are now estimated to be valued at over 15 million pounds.
A small sailing ship named the Minnie Schiffer, under the command of 50 year old Capt. John Wilson was nearing the end of the home leg of her first Atlantic crossing. She had a crew of six, four of whom could not speak English. She was carrying a cargo of fruit and wine from Marseille to Boston. She was built by S.N. Dickinson in Somerset, Mass., for the import-export company Schiffer & Brothers. Built as a schooner, a second deck was later added and she was changed to a Brigantine. She was 108ft. long, with a 26ft. beam (width) and Weighed aprox. 300 ton. At around midday, on the 7th. October 1860 she spotted distress signals and heavy smoke coming from a ship in the distance. The ship was the PS Connaught. She was on fire and listing heavy to her starboard side. Capt. Wilson heaved to (stopped forward motion) two hundred yards from the Connaught and began to take passengers from the lifeboats. Due to a lack of lifeboats a rescue would depend on the few lifeboats available making repeated trips to ferry the passengers to the Minnie Schiffer in storm conditions. The situation aboard the Connaught was becoming critical and extremely dangerous. Water and fire was gaining rapidly. Parts of the hull was red hot and began to buckle with the intense heat. Waves were turned into steam as they pummelled the side of the ship. The pitch and caulking on the decks melted and caught fire. The heat from the deck could be felt through the soles of the shoes of the passengers. The transfer proceeded slowly. Only about 200 passengers had been transferred by sunset. Wilson knew that darkness would bring more hazards and that all the passengers could not be saved. He took a gamble and decided to narrow the gap between the two ships and attach a line to speed the rescue. If at any time now an explosion occurred on the Connaught, or a fire ember set fire to the sails of the Minnie Schiffer, both ships and all aboard would be lost. The Minnie Schiffer was about a quarter the length of the Connaught. The top of her mast only reached deck level. The risky manoeuvre paid off. By 9.30pm all the passengers from one of the largest, and most luxurious liners in the world were safely on board a tiny cargo ship totally unsuitable for the task. Captain Leitch and his First Officer Thomas Connauton were the last to abandon what was now an inferno. The Connaught sank, stern first, at 2am on Monday the 8th. The Minnie Schiffer sailed into Boston on the afternoon of Tue 9th. The passengers were crammed so tightly on deck that some had to cling to the rigging to find space. She was towing lifeboats from the Connaught filled with additional passengers. At a subsequent enquiry Capt. Leitch was highly commended for his “intrepid coolness” throughout the rescue. The quiet and unassuming Capt. Wilson became an overnight celebrity. Both he and his crew were hailed as heroes. They were described as being “instruments in the hands of God.” Capt. Wilson received accolades, financial gifts and awards, including “a splendid silver pitcher and salver” with “appropriate inscriptions,” which he cherished afterwards through “thick and thin.” Originally from Baltimore he settled in New-Orleans, the hometown of his wife. Having no children of their own they adopted and raised several orphans. Much of his career was spent transporting cargo in and around the gulf of Mexico. He went into “the privateering business” on the side of the confederates during the civil war. Captain John Wilson died on September 20, 1877. He was buried in the Girod Street cemetery, New – Orleans.
In 1957 bodies from the cemetery were exhumed to make way for modernisation. Most of the remains are believed to have been disposed of in a landfill. The rescue of the Connaught is considered to be one of the most courageous, daring and successful rescues in maritime history.