Fern Strong – Independence Washington Rogers (lost at sea – 1854)
The death at sea of Independence Washington Rogers in 1854 was the result of a marine disaster of such deplorable circumstances and with such great loss of life as to bring public outrage and shock on both sides of the Atlantic and to change maritime law.
What little we know of the personal details of Roger’s life is that he was born in New London, and was the son of Moses Rogers, a noted sea captain. His wife, buried next to him, was Laura Elton of East Hartford, whose parents are also buried in Center Cemetery. The couple was married in New York, living briefly in Hartford before building a home on the corner of Burnside Avenue and Main Street.
Rogers was Chief Engineer on the SS Arctic, 2nd in rank to the Captain. The Arctic was a 284 feet long, 2,850 ton Paddle Steamer built in a New York City shipyard. A photo of it illustrates the marker of this podcast site.
Noted for its speed and comfort, the ship was at the time the largest and most splendid of the Collins Line, an American steamship company that was a competitor of the British Cunard Line. Offering luxurious accommodations, it had spacious dinning rooms, saloons, and staterooms.
On September 13, 1854 the Arctic was on its return trip to New York from Liverpool. Its passengers included members of the Collins family and the eleven year old son of the ship’s captain, James Luce.
In a heavy fog off of Cape Race, Newfoundland, the steel bow of the SS Vesta, as if it were a battering ram, collided with the wooden hulled Arctic. A French steamer, the Vesta was returning to France from Canada.
While heavily damaged, the Vesta still remained afloat, but not so with the Arctic. Quickly taking on vast amounts of water, it was clear that the great ship was doomed.
The Arctic had only 6 lifeboats, capable of holding 180 people, which was sufficient for most of the passengers – most certainly all of the women and children.
However, in the ensuing panic all the lifeboats were almost entirely taken over by rebellious crew members leaving nearly all the passengers to hopelessly fend for themselves in a sea of frigid water.
Those who perished included 92 officers and crew including Chief Engineer Rogers, most of the male passengers, and all the women and children for a total of nearly 400.
Captain Luce, who had heroically tried to deal with the catastrophic course of events, was rescued two days latter clinging, along with one other man, to a floating paddlewheel box. His young son was among the children who drowned.
The international press and public reaction was relentless in its anger and outrage. Because of how many of the crew had disgraced themselves, the tradition of “women and children first” was formally written into maritime law. Many of those disgraced crewmen never returned to the United States.
The Rogers family was indeed tied to the sea. Moses Rogers, who was Independence’s father, gained some fame as captain of the SS Savannah, when it became the first ship to cross the Atlantic under steam. He was a close friend of Robert Fulton, famous for designing and building the first successful steamboat.
Independence and his wife Laura had a daughter whose birth certificate notes she was born on a steamboat in the South.
Their son, George Washington Rogers was, like his father, also a ship’s engineer, and served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. He and his wife, Delia Forbes, are buried elsewhere in Center Cemetery.