The romance of these commercial ships racing around the Atlantic carrying goods, mail, and passengers—not just those owned by Cunard but many others as well—clearly captured the public imagination. Newspapers were filled with information on their departures and arrivals, as well as on vicissitudes encountered along the way—occasionally including shipwrecks; the thrill of competition was added by widely-reported awards bestowed upon owners whose ships made the speediest transit. Charles Dickens, whose serialized stories were wildly popular at the time, wrote several accounts of ship travel and shipwrecks. Not only did he provide a description of his own uncomfortable transatlantic voyage in 1842 with his wife Catherine, he also incorporated shipwrecks into the plots of some of his novels.
The final reckoning? Of the 177 souls who boarded the Charles Bartlett in London, only 40-some survived—the captain (William Bartlett), the second mate, nine crew members, and some 31 passengers. Most of the 162 steerage passengers were below deck at the time of the crash and perished. Only one of the forty women aboard was rescued. That any at all survived was probably only due to the fast and decisive action of those aboard the Europa.
Twenty-seven years later, in 1876, Robert Forbes published his Personal Reminiscences, followed by a second edition in 1882 and a third in 1892. This account includes not only his recollections written from the perspective of several decades later but also two descriptions he had written shortly after the shipwreck—one in a speech accepting an award for bravery, the other a passage from a letter to his sister describing a conversation with Captain Bartlett. In addition, the book reprints a statement by Captain Bartlett and passages from the log book of the Europa written by Captain Lott. Forbes has thus assembled for us a compendium of eyewitness accounts that actually allow us to piece together what was happening on board both ships immediately prior to the accident, as well as the accident itself and the chaos that followed (quoting here from the second edition of his Personal Reminiscences, available as a google book):
The morning of June 27 was cloudy and windy but briefly cleared up at noon—what we Michiganders would call a “sucker cloud,” one that fails to deliver on the hope it offers of better weather. The passengers on the Charles Bartlett, described by Robert Forbes as “generally of the better class of Germans,” were all emigrants, and most were probably first-time travelers. Cheered by the sun’s appearance and having finally gotten their sea legs, they were likely relieved to be well underway. A group of men broke out their musical instruments, and the women and children gathered on deck to dance and make merry.
Meanwhile, aboard the Europa, Robert Forbes felt unwell and retired to his stateroom in the forward cabin, hoping to escape the noise of the many small children among the passengers, who “made day and night hideous by their squallings.” Sinking to his couch, he fell asleep fully clothed.
Before long the sun retreated into the clouds, and the two ships were once again shrouded in dense fog. By the time the officer on the Europa’s deck saw the Charles Bartlett, it was already dangerously close. Captain Lott rushed from his room to the wheelhouse and ordered the Europa on a course that he hoped would clear the Charles Bartlett, but if not, would strike her stem on. (Whether this was the best decision was hotly debated in the inquiries that followed, but it was later endorsed by Forbes, who concluded that a glancing hit could have been fatal to both ships.)
The next thing Forbes recalled was being awakened by a crash and a shock. A jaded veteran of many voyages, he knew immediately that something very bad had just happened—that the Europa had struck either an iceberg or another vessel. The scene he confronted was described in the press as “appalling in the extreme. A crowd of suffering wretches, maimed or broken by the collision, lay dead or dying on the spot where the bow of the Europa had entered. Some of the individuals who crowded the decks appeared panic stricken, others ran shrieking to and fro in despair, while some rushed forward and eagerly seized up on the opportunities which were presented for giving them a chance at safety.”
Captain Lott and the officers and crew of the Europa, along with its passengers, immediately swung into action, throwing out buoys and ropes and lowering lifeboats. Robert Forbes leaped overboard to assist in the rescue efforts—for which, as noted, he was later awarded a gold medal. The Europa remained in the vicinity searching through the debris until there was no further hope of finding survivors.
Robert Forbes included in his account a list of 30 passengers saved. Among them was one “Henry Stodola, a Prussian.”
Immediately after the accident, the passengers of the Europa set up and contributed 950 pounds to the 19th century version of a gofundme campaign for the survivors. The Cunard line offered to provide the survivors with passage to Boston and to transport them from Boston to New York free of charge.
Not long afterward, in 1850, a young woman from Baden named Barbara (Babbeth) Cohn, along with her mother and several sisters, boarded a ship from Bremen, Germany to New York. Their party entered not through the fabled Ellis Island but an earlier processing station called the Castle Garden Emigrant Landing Depot, located across the bay from Ellis Island in the Battery of Lower Manhattan.
Did Henry and Barbara know each other before they left Europe? More likely they met sometime after their arrival. I’m still searching for a record of their marriage but their first child, Malia, was born in 1855, bracketing the likely date of their wedding. After Malia, Henry and Barbara went on to welcome Joseph in 1858, Lena in 1860, and Samuel in 1862. Joseph Stodola was my great-grandfather, father of the sweet and gentle man I always knew as Grandfather.
The chances of any one of us emerging from this life-or-death lottery are minuscule. Looking forward, there is no way to predict the end result of all these spectacularly chancy couplings. In that sense, each of us is an impossibly unlikely miracle. Looking back, however, after all the dice have already been cast, we all represent the product of this weeding process, we are who we are because of a butterfly’s flapping wings. Our unique identity is still a miracle, in its way, but one that is absolutely inevitable given all that has gone before.
The details of these stories—how one’s ancestor survived an epidemic of measles or smallpox or the plague while her siblings did not; how one’s ancestor escaped from a burning building or was spared a lethal gene conformation or was raped—are mostly shrouded in the fog of history.
Occasionally, however, a precious story filters down to us about how one of our ancestors managed to thread the needle and get to the other side while most of those around him did not. And so it is with Henry Stodola. Had things gone differently on that fateful foggy day, the history of the Stodolas and all their descendants including myself would have veered off in a different direction, and whatever brought you to read this essay today would have steered you to a different choice.