Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Riveter's Curse?

The SS Great Eastern was to be Isambard Kingdom Brunel's crowning achievement - the world's largest ship that would dominate the emigrant trade. She was launched in 1858 as the pinnacle of Victorian marine engineering. The ship, however, had trouble almost from the start. Six men died during her construction; two in an attempt to move her after the launch; five more when a boiler exploded during her sea trials. Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself, who was in incredibly poor health by 1859, died shortly after being told of this last incident. It was simply too much for his ailing body to handle.

The ship entered service in 1860, but was not the great success that had been hoped and financial difficulties ensued. The Great Eastern struck a submerged rock off Long Island in 1862, though her double hull - the first ever on a ship - saved her from total destruction. Divers were able to repair the damage, but reported hearing a strange tapping sound from within the hull itself. It sounded like someone was hitting it with a hammer - trying to get their attention.

Rumors quickly spread that a riveter had been accidentally sealed inside the double hull during construction. His angry spirit, therefore, was said to be the cause of Great Eastern's terrible misfortunes. She was ultimately handed over to the breakers in 1889 after a life of unfulfilled potential.

Legend has it that a skeleton was found inside the hull after the scrappers opened it up. Was this the riveter who had haunted the ship for all those years? Perhaps, but there is no documentation to support this. There is no evidence, in fact, that human remains were found at all.

Despite this, it is nevertheless an interestingly bizarre tale that - if nothing else - makes a good sea story.

References: Daniel Allen Butler, The Age of Cunard: A Transatlantic History 1839-2003 (Annapolis: Lighthouse Press, 2003), 97-98.

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