On the Water


Voyages grew safer in the 1800s, but storms, fires, and rocky coasts still threatened seafarers.

Ever-greater numbers of people traveled and worked at sea in the 1700s and 1800s. Ship design, navigation, and life-saving methods all improved dramatically. But crossing an ocean was a far riskier journey than it is today. Storms on the high seas might be the most terrifying of the dangers, but thousands of men and women lost their lives within sight of shore.

Oil Painting, The Queen of the Ocean Going to the Rescue of the Ocean Monarch [1848]
Oil Painting, The Queen of the Ocean Going to the Rescue of the Ocean Monarch

Oil painting on canvas by Samuel Walters, 1848

Gift of CIGNA Museum and Art Collection

Queen of the Ocean Going to the Rescue of the Ocean Monarch

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On August 24, 1848, the Ocean Monarch caught fire while sailing from Liverpool, England, to the United States. The yacht Queen of the Ocean rescued 30 people. Other ships picked up another 188. The ship and 178 passengers were lost.

The Wreck and Rescue of an Immigrant Ship

The British bark Ayrshire ran aground off Squan Beach, New Jersey, in January 1850. But the passengers and crew had reason for hope: Congress had begun funding the construction of life-saving stations along the coast of New York and New Jersey two years before.

The sea was too rough to launch a surfboat, and the local wreckmaster decided to use his station’s life-car instead. Hauled between the shore and the wreck on ropes, the enclosed boat made 60 trips to the wreck over two days and rescued all but one of Ayrshire’s 166 passengers and 36 crew.

Sailing from Famine

Many of the passengers on the Ayrshire’s final voyage were likely Irish laborers, farmers, and families fleeing famine in Ireland. Almost one million people between 1846 and 1851 died because of the failures of the potato crop and poor distribution of what remained. Hundreds of thousands more sailed for the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia.

Courtesy of Doris A. Martin

After the Wreck

The Irish immigrants aboard the Ayrshire included 50-year-old John Woods, some of his siblings, his 30-year-old wife Lydia, and their three sons—a 2-year-old and infant twins. The family came ashore in the Francis Life-Car. Some settled in New York, while John, Lydia, and their children continued on to Canada, where they established a farm north of Toronto.

The Ayrshire Wreck

The passengers and crew of the bark Ayrshire came ashore in the Francis Life-Car, January 12, 1850. Ships traveling the busy sea lanes leading to New York frequently came to grief on the shores of Long Island and New Jersey. In the 1840s, an average of three vessels a month wrecked in these coastal waters.

Gift of Joseph Francis

The Francis Life-Car

The life-car overhead rescued the passengers and crew of the stranded bark Ayrshire. It was the first such car ever used in an emergency. Developed by inventor Joseph Francis and manufactured by the Novelty Iron Works in Brooklyn, it was installed at the new Squan Beach, New Jersey, life-saving station in 1849. Boat-shaped and buoyant, the iron life-car was hauled between the stranded vessel and the beach on stout ropes.

  • Life-car interior

    Two to four people were sealed inside for each ride from ship to shore.

    Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1851

  • Building Iron Boats

    The hydraulic press was used at the Novelty Iron Works to shape metallic-boat parts.

    Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1851

  • Chadwick Beach Life Saving Station

    When the first federal life-saving stations were built along the New Jersey coast in 1849, they were equipped with galvanized iron surfboats. This station, at Chadwick Beach, was established around 1850. Each station was also given an experimental “life-car”—an enclosed boat designed to be hauled by ropes to and from stranded vessels. Life-cars made by Joseph Francis’s works rescued at least 1,400 people on the New Jersey coast alone by the end of 1853.

    Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office


Inventing Safety

Between 1790 and 1873, the U.S. Patent Office granted 163 patents for an amazing variety of life-preserving boats, rafts, clothing, and other gear. Many of them were invented with an eye toward the rise in passenger travel: life-preserving bedsteads, berths, buckets, bucket rafts, buoys, capes, chairs, stools, dresses, doors, garments, hammocks, mattresses, and even a “life-preserving hat.” Few of these inventions enjoyed practical success.

U.S. patent drawings for life-saving gear

Courtesy of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Variations on the Lifeboat

Joseph Francis of New York experimented with new ways to make boats throughout his career.

Patent Model, Life Boat [1841]
Patent Model, Life Boat

Patent No. 2,018, March 26, 1841

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

Lifeboat patent model

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In 1841, Joseph Francis patented air-filled chambers to keep a lifeboat afloat, even if damaged. His model contained holes to allow any “water within [to] escape freely without bailing.”

Patent Model, Method of Building Wood Boats [1841]
Patent Model, Method of Building Wood Boats

Patent No. 2,293, October 11, 1841

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

Patent model for a boat-building method

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This model accompanied Joseph Francis’ patent application for a new way of fastening a boat’s planking together.

Honoring Joseph Francis

Joseph Francis made a name for himself in the 1840s and 1850s manufacturing light and sturdy iron lifeboats and other nautical gear. These model dies and a sample copper sheet show how his boats were constructed using grooved metal plates.

Francis traveled extensively promoting his inventions and was honored in several countries. French Emperor Napoleon III gave him this snuff box in 1856. President Benjamin Harrison presented this Congressional medal to him in 1890.

More Ideas for Saving Lives

Patent Model, Life and Treasure Buoy [1858]
Patent Model, Life and Treasure Buoy

Patent No. 20,072, April 27, 1858

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

Life buoy patent model

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Francis D. Lee of Charleston, South Carolina, envisioned a shipboard water tank that—if drained in time—would float free of a sinking ship. Passengers would cling to its exterior while a “treasure safe” suspended below would save “bullion, mails, and other valuables.” If the buoy itself sank, a smaller cork buoy would float out of the turret at the top to “mark the location of the lost treasure.”

Patent Model, Life Raft [1874]
Patent Model, Life Raft

Patent No. 146,316, January 13, 1874

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

Life raft patent model

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This raft uses rows of air-filled cylinders as floats. The elaborate wood framework protects the floats from damage and forms a deck. The inventor, George Clark of Ecorse, Michigan, hoped his rafts would be placed on the upper decks of steamships, “...whence they may readily be thrown into the water by one or two persons of ordinary strength, thus avoiding the delay and uncertainty of...launching boats.”

Patent Model, Life Boat [1874]
Patent Model, Life Boat

Patent No. 149,891, December 12, 1874

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

Lifeboat patent model

View Object Record

Alpheus G. and Abram T. Sterling, fishermen from Portland, Maine, designed this boat to partially flood when launched. Water allowed into one chamber helped the boat resist capsizing while air-sealed rubber fenders and a second interior chamber kept it afloat.

Patent Model, Life Boat [1879]
Patent Model, Life Boat

Patent No. 211,807, January 28, 1879

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

Lifeboat patent model

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Designers George Tremberger and Michael Joseph Stein of New York City claimed that this boat’s “cabin is free to roll in the body of the boat, and consequently the effect of the rolling motions of the boat is not felt by the passengers.” Among the boat’s many features were a telescoping mast and hand-operated propeller.

“The Sea Ran Mountains High”

On September 3, 1857, the steamship Central America left Panama for New York City with nearly 600 passengers and crew. Nine days later, the vessel sank in a hurricane off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in the deadliest peacetime shipwreck in American history. Four hundred twenty-five people perished in the wreck. And tons of California gold went to the bottom.

The wreck horrified and fascinated the American public and helped spark a financial crisis known as the Panic of 1857. Without the gold on board, several New York banks were unable to pay their creditors. Rediscovered in 1987, the wreck was later salvaged.

The vessel suddenly careened to one side and, looking toward our porthole, I notice that it was entirely under water.
—Addie Easton, survivor of the wreck of the Central America
It blew a perfect hurricane and the sea ran mountains high.
—Merchant ship captain Thomas Badger, a passenger on the Central America



From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, October 3, 1857

Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library

The sinking of the Central America was international news. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly and other newspapers published artists’ re-creations of the tragedy.

Rigged Model, Steamship George Law (Central America)  [1961]
Rigged Model, Steamship George Law (Central America)

Paddle steamer Central America

Built by William Webb at New York in 1853

The Central America

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The Central America was a three-masted sidewheel steamship originally named the George Law. In 43 trips between Panama and New York City between 1852 and 1857, the ship carried as much as a third of all the gold found during the California gold rush. On its final voyage, the ship’s gold cargo included thousands of new $20 Double Eagle gold coins produced at the San Francisco Mint.

Ship’s Speaking Trumpet, Bark Laura [1858]
Ship’s Speaking Trumpet, Bark Laura

Gift of William A. and Jo Anne Eidson

Boatswain’s Trumpet, 1858

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President James Buchanan gave this ornamental silver speaking trumpet to the captain of the German bark Laura for bringing the Central America’s final three survivors to New York City. The British brig Mary actually rescued the men after nine horrific days on the open ocean. Bound for Ireland, the Mary transferred them to the New York-bound Laura.