The Burning of the Steamer “City of Montreal”

A SAD tale of the sea I will relate, which will your hearts appal
Concerning the burning of the steamship “City of Montreal,”
Which had on board two hundred and forty-nine souls in all,
But, alas! a fearful catastrophe did them befall.

The steamer left New York on the 6th August with a general cargo,
Bound for Queenstown and Liverpool also;
And all went well until Wednesday evening the 10th,
When in an instant an alarming fire was discovered at length.

And most of the passengers had gone to their berths for the night,
But when the big bell rang out, oh! what a pitiful sight;
To see mothers and their children crying, was most heartrending to behold,
As the blinding smoke began to ascend from the main hold.

And the smoke before long drifted down below,
Which almost choked the passengers, and filled their hearts with woe;
Then fathers and mothers rushed madly upon the deck,
While the crew were struggling manfully the fire to check.

Oh, it was a soul-harrowing and horrible sight,
To see the brave sailors trying hard with all their might;
Battling furiously with the merciless flames —
With a dozen of hose, but still the fire on them gains.

At length it became apparent the steamer couldn’t be saved,
And the passengers were huddled together, and some of them madly raved;
And the family groups were most touching to see,
Especially husbands and wives embracing each other tenderly.

The mothers drew their little ones close to them,
Just like little lambs huddled together in a pen;
While the white foaming billows was towering mountains high,
And one and all on God for protection did cry.

And when the Captain saw the steamer he couldn’t save,
He cried, come men, prepare the boats to be launched on the briny wave;
Be quick, and obey my orders, let each one bear a hand-
And steer the vessel direct for Newfoundland.

Then the men made ready the boats, which were eight on board,
Hurriedly and fearlessly with one accord;
And by eight o’clock on Thursday morning, everything was ready
For the passengers to leave the burning steamer that was rolling unsteady.

Then Captain Land on his officers loudly did call,
And the cheery manliness of him inspired confidence in all;
Then he ordered the men to lower the boats without delay,
So the boats were launched on the stormy sea without dismay.

Then women and children were first put into them,
Also a quantity of provisions, then followed the men;
And as soon as the boats were loaded they left the steamer’s side,
To be tossed to and fro on the ocean wide.

And just as they left the burning ship, a barque hove in sight,
Which filled the poor creatures’ hearts with delight;
And the barque was called the “Trebant,” of Germany,
So they were all rescued and conveyed to their homes in safety.

But before they left the barque, they thanked God that did them save
From a cold and merciless watery grave;
Also the Captain received their thanks o’er and o’er,
Whilst the big waves around the barque did sullenly roar.

So good people I warn ye ail to be advised by me,
To remember and be prepared to meet God where’er ye may be;
For death claims his victims, both on sea and shore,
Therefore be prepared for that happy land where all troubles are o’er.

Destroyed in Midocean

Burning of the Steamship City of Montreal

The Passengers and Crew all Rescued Except Thirteen

A Terrible Fight with Fire

London, Aug. 19.— The Inman Line steamer City of Montreal has been destroyed by fire at sea. All of her passengers were saved except 13, who are missing. The news of the disaster was learned upon the arrival at Queenstown this morning of‘ the British steamer York City, Capt. Benn, which left Baltimore on Aug. 4 for London. This steamer rescued the passengers and crew from the burning vessel and brought them to Queenstown.

The destruction of the steamer occurred on the 11th inst., five days after she left New-York. A boat containing six passengers and seven members of the crew is missing. The occupants of this boat are the 13 persons reported missing.

The passengers and crew of the City of Montreal were taken off the York City by the tug Mount Etna and landed at Queenstown. All were accounted for except the 13 persons in the missing boat.

It is learned that soon after the passengers had gone to bed on the night of the 10th, the ship being in latitude 43° north at the time, they were aroused by an alarm or fire. A scene of consternation ensued, and the passengers were greatly terrified when they found out the true state of affairs. The smoke caused by the fire was suffocating. The passengers dressed and got on deck as quickly as possible, and with but little appearance of panic. The fire had originated in the cotton stored in the after main hold. Nine streams of water were soon working on the flames, and the course of the vessel was shaped toward Newfoundland, 400 miles distant. The flames spread with great rapidity, and soon had burst with terrific force through the midway and after hatches, the heat being intense.

The boats were eight in number, and consisted of four lifeboats and four pinnaces. These were launched and stocked with provisions. The flames spread with great fierceness, and the efforts to quench them, it was soon found, were futile. At 8 o’clock in the morning, the passengers were marshaled on deck preparatory to entering the boats. Many of them were weeping, but on the whole they were quiet and orderly. The family groups presented a sight pitiful to see as they huddled together in fear and trembling. There was a heavy sea running, and it was with great difficulty that the boats were kept from being swamped. The crew worked splendidly, and all the passengers were placed in the boats in a comparatively short time. How the boats floated with their heavy loads is a miracle. As the last boat was putting off from the ship several of the passengers and crew were seen aft. They had been overlooked, and were screaming to the boats to return. They were subsequently bravely rescued half dead from the effects of the smoke and heat. The masts of a vessel were seen on the horizon, but 10 hours elapsed before it came near. The boats soon scattered and one entirely vanished. This contained two stewards, four seamen and seven passengers, and there is but little doubt that the whole boatload perished. The boat did not contain a full crew, and left the City of Montreal against the Captain’s orders, as there was time to take many more in it. The other survivors consider the fate of the occupants of the lost boat as judgement for their cowardice.

A bark was sighted soon after the boats left the steamer, and her crew were preparing to pick up the survivors when the steamer York City, attracted by the flames from the burning vessel which were  shooting up a hundred feet in the air, bore down and with some difficulty took all hands on board. The rescued people were treated with the utmost kindness by the Captain and crew of the York City. and the passengers speak with much feeling of the consideration which was accorded to them. The York City proceeded to London after landing the City of Montreal’s passengers and crew at Queenstown. The survivors are unanimous in declaring that the officers and crew of the City of Montreal did their duty nobly and skillfully.

New York Times, 20th August 1887


On 6th August 1886, the City of Montreal left New York harbour headed for Liverpool. On board were 145 passengers, 97 crew, and holds stuffed with bales of cotton bound for the textile mills of North-West England.

For the first few days all was well: the weather was fine and the journey was uneventful. Everything changed on the evening of the 10th, when a crewman spotted smoke emerging from a small hatchway in the bowels of the ship. The alarm was raised, and a fire was quickly discovered among the cotton bales in the after hold.

Hand grenades containing fire-retardant liquid were dropped into the hold, and hoses were brought to bear in an effort to get to the root of the fire. Meanwhile the passengers were assembled on the deck and the ship’s eight lifeboats were made ready in case they should be needed.

All night the crew wrestled with the blaze. At one point they seemed to be getting it under control, but their hopes were dashed when flames burst from a forward hatchway indicating that the fire had spread through the ship. Realising that his vessel was doomed, Captain Land gave the order to abandon ship.

The scene was one of confusion, but not of panic. The deck was wreathed with thick, black smoke, a strong wind was blowing, and many of the crew were still fighting the fire and thus not at their allotted boat stations. A passenger later described the scene:

A picture of human misery and almost helpless despair was presented, such as words cannot adequately describe. Mothers clasped to their bosoms, with a fervency proportioned to the danger, their helpless children, husbands and wives embraced each other for what they felt to be in all probability the last time. To add to the difficulty at the moment, the sea ran high, much higher than at any time during the voyage. The danger of the boats being smashed while being lowered and when in the water was imminent. The difficulty of putting the passengers aboard, chiefly the women and children, was very great, and even when that was effected there still remained the heavy sea, on which it seemed scarcely possible the boats could live.

Nonetheless the boats were filled and launched in orderly fashion, women and children first, with the Captain last to leave the ship. Only once all the boats had been loaded and launched was it discovered that about twenty people had been left aboard the City of Montreal, having been lost in the smoke. Some of the lifeboats had to return to the ship to pick them up. One of the lifeboats, more than half empty, was seen making for the open sea – much to the annoyance of the Captain who had ordered them to stay close to the ship, knowing that the column of smoke would act as a distress beacon to passing shipping.

This proved to be the case, and a German barque, the Trebant, came up to rescue the remaining seven boats after eight uncomfortable hours bobbing about on the Atlantic. Later that evening, they transferred to a larger ship, the York City, better able to accommodate so many people. A search was made for the missing lifeboat, but in vain – a just punishment, some said, for their cowardice and disobedience.

The York City sailed on across the Atlantic. It was only with the greatest difficulty that an extra 200 men, women and children could be squeezed into the ship, but space was found for them somehow. When food stocks inevitably ran low, the ship’s cargo of canned meat was broached to fill the gap.

On the 19th August, the York City landed at Queenstown (now called Cobh) on the south coast of Ireland and set down its unexpected passengers, who must have been most relieved to see dry land again – they had had a most fortunate escape.

But what of the missing lifeboat? Far from being motivated by cowardice, it had fled the scene purely due to lack of skilled hands to manage it. One of its crew, fireman Patrick Hughes, takes up the scene soon after launch:

I looked around, and on counting the crew found that we were 13 all told. There’s no luck in odd numbers, no matter what Rory O’More may say, and least of all is there luck in the number 13. Soon after the hurry and excitement of leaving the burning ship had subsided we began to look about us, and then we perceived that our boat was alone, that none of the others were in sight

The men had high hopes of being picked up by a vessel plying the busy shipping lanes in this part of the Atlantic, but they were without luck for two desperate days and nights – sometimes having to bale water out of their boat to keep it afloat on the rough sea. “I have been in close places before,” recalled Hughes, “but I never thought Davy Jones’s locker so very near as on the first night out in the little cockleshell, and with the water tumbling in streams over our gunwales.”

Finally, with their stock of water running low, they spotted a tramp steamer on the horizon and rowed like fury to reach her. Imagine their dismay to discover that the vessel in question was the City of Montreal, still burning! They lay down in despair, floating alongside the abandoned ship for another day before they were finally rescued by a German vessel, the Mathilde, and taken to Falmouth.

The City of Montreal had been totally destroyed by fire 400 miles from the nearest land,  but every single one of her passengers and crew lived to tell the tale. Hardly what we’ve come to expect from a McGonagall poem!

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Comments (4) »

  1. Stephen
    In the year 2013, on the 18th day of September at 5:15 pm

    Thanks for posting this! This adds depth to the story of the S.S. City Of Montreal, and looks good also!

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