One hundred and seventy years ago The Sirius was the first vessel to cross the Atlantic entirely under the power of steam.
Built in Leith, Edinburgh, the Sirius first came to Cork in 1837 when she was purchased by the St. George Steam Packet Company for the then princely sum of £27,000. She was big and powerful by the standards of the day. Her two cylinder engines had been built on the Clyde by J. Wingate & Co. of Glasgow. Their piston stroke of 6 feet (nearly 2 metres) delivered steam pressure of 5 lbs per sq. inch (34.5 kN per square metre). The engine room itself was 57 feet in length.
With a gross tonnage of 703, the Sirius was a sturdy little ship. Built of timber with carvel construction, she had one deck and two masts. Her length from the inner part of the main stem to the fore part of the sterm post aloft was certified as being 178 feet 4/10ths. Her breadth midships was similarly certified as 25 ft 8/10ths and her depth mid-ships as 18ft 3/10ths. She was schooner-rigged with a standing bowsprit and carried square sails on the mast forward of her tall narrow funnel. Her stern was square, while a dog figurehead decorated her bow. This dog figureheadwas a fine work of art: a dog holding a star in its paws. The same theme was used to decorate a clock in her saloon.
The Sirius normally undertook the run from Cork to London but, early in 1838, she was chartered by the British and American Steam Navigation Co. to voyage to New York. Both the Sirius and her much larger rival, the Great Western, were scheduled to leave from London. The Sirius was to leave on 28th March, calling to Cork on 2nd April and to sail from there to America. The Great Western was to leave London on 7th April but to sail directly to New York.
The Sirius was given some modifications for the voyage: increased bunkerage for coal and the paddle boxes changed from square to round in outline.
The Sirius was quite crowded for the trip. Some came aboard in London, others in Cork. She had a total of 40 passengers comprising 5 ladies and 6 men in the first cabin, 5 ladies and 3 men in the second and 1 lady and 20 men in steerage. First class, the first cabin, cost 35 guineas including provisions and wine. Second class was 20 guineas, not including wine. Steerage cost 8 guineas. Food on the voyage was top class. The ship lay at anchor off Passage West, taking fuel and supplies on board. Stout was loaded from the Beamish & Crawford brewery in Cork, as well as delicacies and other treats from Gambles Provisions on Morrison’s Island. She was also loaded with as much extra coal as she could carry.
The Sirius, her passengers and her 38-strong crew under the command of Captain Richard Roberts R.N. of Ardmore, Passage West, set off from Passage West at 10 am on 4th April 1838, two days later than intended. A salutary battery of guns was fired, crowds came to see them leave and a number of distinguished visitors travelled on her as far as Cobh. Captain Roberts described the departure in his subsequent log of the voyage:
“The Sirius started from Passage, port of Cork, on 4 April at 10.30 am in company with the Ocean, another splendid steamer of the St. George Steam Packet Company. On leaving Passage, about 7 miles below Cork, we were loudly cheered by the inhabitants, together with the most respectable families in Cork, who had assembled with warm hearts and handsome faces (the ladies, I mean) to witness our departure and wish us success on our passage to our transAtlantic brethren. Most of the gentlemen interested in our vessel proceeded with us as far as the Cove (Cobh) of Cork, where we stopped to let Ocean come alongside to take the above gentlemen out, which having been done, with three hearty cheers and many heartier wishes, we gallantly bent our way for New York.”
The weather was bad. Some of the passengers and crew wanted to turn back, but Capt. Roberts held firmly on. Sirius arrived in New York on 22nd April 1838. She had steamed 2,897 nautical miles at an average of 161 nautical miles per day. She had used up all her coal and the engine revolutions had run at 15 per minute all the way.
Eighteen hours later, on the afternoon of 23rd April, the 1,340 ton Great Western steamed into New York. The little Sirius had pipped her to the post! A passenger on the Great Western described what they saw when they arrived:
“The first vessel to which our attention was now given was the Sirius lying in the North River, gay with flaming streamers and literally crammed with visitors – her decks – her paddle boxes – her rigging, mast head high. We passed around her, receiving and giving three hearty cheers, then turned towards the Batteru – her arrival was an achievement, we had been sharers in the chances of a noble effort and each of us felt the pride in the participation in the success of it and this was the crowning instant, experiment had ceased – certainty was attained.”
Captain Roberts was subsequently presented with the freedom of Cork and London and the people of Passage presented him with a silver salver.
The Sirius made a second trip to New York under Captain Stephen S. Moyle. She was lost at Ware Cove near Ballycotton on 16th January 1847.
Captain Richard Roberts and all his crew were lost when the steamer President went down while on a return voyage from New York in March 1841. Three years later, a cenotaph was erected to the memory of Captain Roberts in the grounds of the Marmullane churchyard.
The 150th anniversary of the sailing of the Sirius was commemorated in 1988. A re-enactment of the departure on the morning of 4th April 1838 was the high point of the celebrations organised in Passage West. The US Ambassador and the then Minister for the Marine were among the dignitaries to attend.