Top 10 Shipwrecks and Maritime Disasters in U.S. History

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Throughout history, boats have been one of the most efficient ways to transport everything from vital supplies to humans. But this efficiency can come with a price, as human error and nature’s power sometimes leads to disaster. Many of the following maritime incidents have become immortalized by legends and song while others have disappeared into history. Here are the top 10 shipwrecks and maritime disasters in or near United States waters.

 

10. Exxon Valdez

The Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster prompted a massive cleanup in Alaska.

Photo credit: CC BY-ND 2.0 Jim Brickett

On March 24, 1989, a 987-foot oil tanker known as the Exxon Valdez was headed for California through Prince William Sound in Alaska. As Captain Joseph Hazelwood slept off an alcohol-induced bender below decks, his third mate (operating without a functioning collision radar) steered the vessel right into Bligh Reef. The error spilled approximately 11 million gallons of crude oil, which eventually covered 1,300 miles of coastline and killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds and other marine life. Exxon was widely criticized for its slow response to the cleanup and more than 11,000 Alaskans attempted to restore the region’s environment. Hazelwood was acquitted of all major charges except for a $50,000 fine and community service. The ship was repaired and now serves as an ore carrier under a Panamanian registry. Despite the extensive cleanup, less than 10 percent of the overall oil was recovered and according to a 2007 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about 26,000 gallons still remain in the sandy soil.

 

9. SS Edmund Fitzgerald

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald's sinking in Lake Superior in 1975 remains a mystery.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a 729-foot freighter, was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. Launched in June 1958, it transported iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minnesota, to the major iron works around Lake Superior. Over time, the ship had become popular due to its size, record-breaking performance, and captain, who was known for blaring music over the ship’s intercom system while passing through the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers. On Nov. 9, 1975, the ship departed for Detroit loaded with more than 26,000 tons of iron. The Edmund Fitzgerald ran into a storm early the next morning, and by mid-afternoon, reported encountering 25-foot waves with 50-knot winds. In mid-afternoon, the ship radioed that it was taking on water. Around 7 p.m., the nearby SS Anderson contacted the Fitzgerald and asked, “How are you making out with your problem?” In what would be the final communication, Capt. Ernest McSorley replied, “We are holding our own.”

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank minutes later in Canadian waters 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Bay, Michigan. The entire crew of 29 went down with the ship and no bodies were recovered. Today, it remains unclear what actually happened although theories range from opened hatch doors to structural failure. The incident was immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot in the 1976 hit song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. (“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they called “Gitche Gumee.” The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.”)

 

8. SS Andrea Doria

The Andrea Doria's wreck site is regarded as the

Photo credit: Harry Trask

During the 1950s, more than 50 passenger ocean liners sailed regularly between Europe and the United States. Among the most luxurious was the SS Andrea Doria. The 697-foot liner offered passengers three outdoor swimming pools and state-of-the-art cabins. The ship’s design included 11 watertight compartments and lifeboats that could be launched even if the ship’s list reached 20 degrees. On July 25, 1956, it was headed for New York near the island of Nantucket with 1,706 passengers. At the same time, the 528-foot MS Stockholm was on its transatlantic voyage back to Sweden. Unfortunately, the two ships charted similar courses at full speed completely unaware of each other’s presence. Once the ships spotted each other, it was too late and crucial errors in steering only made it worse. The bow of the Stockholm plunged into the Andrea Doria’s starboard side, ripping open seven decks. Within minutes the ship had listed 20 degrees and after 11 hours, the Andrea Doria sank as news photographers recorded the event. 1,660 passengers were rescued while 46 people died as a consequence of the collision. Today, the ship lies at a depth of almost 250 feet and has been called “The Mount Everest of Dive Sites” due to the challenging dive depth, dangerous currents, and fishing nets that drape the rusted hull.

 

7. USS Thresher

The USS Thresher is one of two nuclear-powered subs the U.S. has lost.

Photo credit: Naval History & Heritage Command

The USS Thresher was a 3,700-ton, nuclear-powered attack submarine commissioned in August 1961. Despite issues that ranged from reactor shutdowns to electrical malfunctions, it participated in nuclear exercises that included testing torpedoes and evaluating submarine rocket systems. On April 9, 1963, the Thresher sailed to an area 220 miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and began a series of deep-sea trials. The next morning, the accompanying ship USS Skylark received a garbled message: “Minor difficulty … have positive up-angle, attempting to blow.” At 9:18 a.m., the Skylark’s sonar picked up the sounds of a submarine breaking apart. With a fleet of rescue ships that included the bathyscaphe Trieste, the submarine was found broken into six major sections at a depth of 8,400 feet. Investigations proved that the Thresher suffered from a failure in the piping system that caused a reactor shutdown and a loss of propulsion. Timed with the inability to blow the ballast tanks due to frozen valves, the submarine dropped like a brick and imploded with 129 members on board. The tragedy inspired rigorous safety programs such as (SUBSAFE). The U.S. Navy lost another nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Scorpion, five years later, to unknown causes in an incident in the Atlantic. There have been no incidents since then.

 

6. SS Central America

The gold-laden SS Central America sank in a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina in 1857.
The SS Central America was a 272-foot steamship launched in October 1852. In its five years of service, it completed 43 round-trip journeys between New York and Panama and transported one-third of the gold from the California Gold Rush. On Sept. 3, 1857, the ship departed from Panama with 476 passengers and three tons of gold, which included 5,200 newly minted $20 gold pieces from the San Francisco Mint. On Sept. 9, the ship was caught in a Category 2 hurricane off the Carolinas with sustained 100-mile-per-hour winds. With shredded sails, a boiler failure, and a leak in the paddlewheel, the ship began taking on water. After a failed attempt to bail the rising water, the crew flew the ship’s flag upside down (the maritime distress signal). But no one came to their rescue and the ship sank with 426 passengers on Sept. 12, 160 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The 50 remaining survivors were rescued by a Norwegian vessel five hours later. Although the subsequent Civil War overshadowed the event, it was one of the most tragic shipwrecks in the 19th century and another addition to the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” A private salvage company located remains of the ship in 1987 and recovered an estimated $100 million worth of gold.

 

5. Texas City Disaster

The explosion of the SS Grandcamp in Texas City in 1947 killed hundreds and shattered windows 40 miles away.

Photo credit: Alfred S. Gerson

On April 16, 1947, a 437-foot French-registered vessel sat docked in the port of Texas City on the Texas Gulf Coast. Known as the SS Grandcamp, its cargo included 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate used for fertilizer and high explosives. After a small fire started in the cargo hold, the captain ordered his men to steam out the fire in order to protect the cargo. The steam actually liquefied the ammonium nitrate and raised the temperature of the hold to 850 degrees Fahrenheit, which caused the water around the ship to boil. At 9:12 a.m., the ammonium nitrate detonated with an explosive force that shattered windows 40 miles away, ignited nearby oil refineries, destroyed hundreds of buildings and even sheared off the wings of overhead planes. The explosion, dubbed the “Texas City Disaster,” injured thousands and killed an estimated 600 people. An exact death count was difficult to determine due to the condition of the bodies and even dental students were sent in to aid in the identification by using dental records. The event was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history and survivors stated that the devastation reminded them of images from the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima.

 

4. SS Eastland

The top-heavy SS Eastland appeared to be a disaster waiting to happen before capsizing in Chicago in 1915.
On July 24, 1915, the passenger ship SS Eastland was docked on the Chicago River in downtown Chicago preparing to depart for Lake Michigan. The ship had been chartered to take Western Electric Co. employees and their family members on a well-deserved cruise and picnic. As the 2,700 passengers boarded the ship, it began to list while still moored to the dock. Eventually, the weight caused the ship to roll onto its side, spilling hundreds of passengers into the river with the rest trapped underwater in the interior cabins. The disaster killed 844 passengers, mostly women and children. From its launch in 1902, the ship had been a disaster waiting to happen. Its center of gravity was simply too high, which made it susceptible to listing. Ironically, following the Titanic disaster, the 1915 Seamen’s Act required that the top-heavy Eastland include a complete set of lifeboats. Combined with the weight of the passengers, there was no way the Eastland could safely leave the dock.

 

3. PS General Slocum

The PS General Slocum's safety features were woefully inadequate to deal with the deadly fire that killed 1,021 people.
Built in 1891, the 235-foot passenger steamship PS General Slocum was involved in a number of incidents in the New York region. But none of these events would compare to the disaster on June 15, 1904, when 1,358 passengers boarded the ship for an annual church event up the East River. Shortly after launch, a small fire began in the forward section and within the hour, the fire had spread to a paint locker that contained gasoline and other flammable liquids. Unfortunately, the captain had not maintained any safety standards so all of the fire hoses had rotted away, the lifeboats were bolted in place, and life jackets were unusable. To make matters worse, the captain sailed into headwinds that actually spread the fire over the majority of the ship. By the time it sank off the Bronx shore, 1,021 people had died and it was New York’s largest loss of life in a single disaster until the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

 

2. SS Sultana

The SS Sultana was overloaded with hundreds of extra former Union POWs when it sank in the Mississippi River in 1865.
April 1865 was an incredibly busy month for the United States. The long and bloody Civil War ended with Robert E. Lee’s surrender and President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Meanwhile, the SS Sultana, a steamship that regularly traveled from St. Louis to New Orleans, was commissioned by the war department to transport just-released Union prisoners of war back home. The ship was legally registered to carry a maximum of less than 400 people, but with the government paying $5 per soldier, 2,300 soldiers were packed in so tightly that they could barely stand. At 2 a.m., April 27, three of the ship’s boilers exploded since they were rapidly and poorly repaired in order to get “first dibs” of the POWs. Fire quickly spread throughout the ship and those who survived jumped into the river and drowned. By the time the sun came up, more than 1,700 soldiers were dead and the Sultana sank about seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. Even though it was the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history, news of the incident was printed toward the back of the newspapers and soon forgotten due to the tragic news of Lincoln’s assassination and the killing of his assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

 

1. USS Arizona

The USS Arizona's tragic demise came to symbolize the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Just before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft from six fleet carriers attacked the heart of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet in the port of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The two attack waves destroyed or severely damaged many vessels including several of the U.S. Navy’s prized battleships: the USS Arizona, California, Oklahoma and West Virginia. The Arizona sustained eight direct bomb hits, one of which penetrated the deck and the black-powder magazine. The subsequent explosion and fire ripped through the forward part of the ship. The Arizona sank at its mooring taking the lives of 1,177 of the 1,400 sailors on board making it the greatest loss of life on any warship in U.S. history. Its fires burned for more than two days and oil continues to seep up from the wreckage to this day. In all, 2,402 Americans were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, which came to be symbolized by the destruction of the USS Arizona.

Today, a 184-foot memorial structure spans the mid-portion of the Arizona and consists of several rooms including a marble wall engraved with the names of those killed. The touching memorial was dedicated in May 1962 and it welcomes an average of 1.5 million visitors a year.

 

One More: Honda Point Disaster

The U.S. Navy lost seven destroyers in an embarrassing peace-time incident off the California coast in 1923.
On Sept. 8, 1923, in one of the most bizarre incidents in U.S. Naval history, nine United States destroyers running almost top speed in formation ran onto the rocky reefs of Point Pedernales, off the coast near Santa Barbara, California. The incident was especially baffling since the area had been known for hundreds of years for its maritime hazards. Seven of the destroyers sank in 40 feet of water, and the Honda Point Disaster resulted in 23 deaths.

 

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Written by

James Nalley is a full-time freelance writer specializing in a wide array of historical, travel and cultural topics. He is a leading contributor to the Discover Maine history magazine and the Feature Latin-America and Caribbean Travel Writer to Suite101, an online magazine based in Vancouver. He also writes commercially for Demand Media Studios and also serves as an editor for the Enago Corp. in Japan. His work has been published in over 100 magazines and websites.