Monday, July 22, 2013

Maritime Monday ~ James McCain and Wife Board the "City of Boston" at Halifax

James McCain arrived in Carleton County, New Brunswick, at the tender age of 18, in 1829, well before many of his countrymen and their families would follow as a result of the Potato Famine in 1847. He had left County Donegal, seeking a better life for himself, and soon found it five years later, with the arrival of 19 year old Isabella Ferguson in May of 1834. 

By the 1851 Census of Simonds Parish, he was a 40 year old "Farmer (Prop)" with Isabella as his wife and the mother of their eight children. He owned the land he farmed, as opposed to being a tenant farmer.1

Beginning with the birth of daughter Jane in 1835, and for the next 27 years, the McCain family lived in rural Carleton County, farming the land and raising three sons and six daughters.

The Carleton Sentinel sadly noted Isabella's passing, however, in their July 26, 1862 issue:

"d. Simonds (Carleton Co.), 4th inst., Isabella McCain w/o James McCain, age 47, left husband, nine children."2

Left a widower with a large family, the 57 year old James did not hesitate to take a second wife, the 58 year old Alice Patterson, and it was the two of them who would perish together aboard the ill-fated mail steamer "City of Boston."

City of Boston, Inman Steamship

Numerous accounts detail the story of the loss of the SS City of Boston in February of 1870. Built in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1864, she is the largest vessel to disappear without a trace off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Belonging to the Inman Line, she departed New York on January 25th and headed for Halifax to pick up mail, coal and more passengers. James McCain and wife Alice went aboard as steerage passengers (the cheapest rate, the lowest deck, and the worst traveling conditions). Clearing Halifax on the 28th, the ship was carrying 207 passengers and crew, including a number of prominent Halifax businessmen and military officers. She was due to arrive in Liverpool on the 6th of March.

Typical Steerage (Between Decks)

There were many theories as to the cause of the ship's loss, one being that she may have been overloaded. Besides the 207 human lives, her cargo included: 390 tons of beef, 200 barrels of flour, 486 bales of cotton, 12 cases of sewing machines, 18 tons of oil cake (livestock food), 189,700 pounds of bacon, 10,376 pounds of wheat, 82,672 pounds of tallow, and 36 bales of hops. By August, a libel suit would be filed by the Inman Steamship Company asserting that the "City of Boston" was as sea-worthy a ship as any plying the seas.

A more likely cause, given the Inman track across the Atlantic, as well as the time of year, was a winter gale or a collision with an ice berg. If her steam-powered engine had suffered a malfunction, and she had had to rely on her sails, she would have been at the mercy of any fowl weather the North Atlantic offered up. So many steam ships were traversing the ocean during this period, that, were she in distress, it is likely some other ship would have seen her rockets (assuming she was able to fire them off).

There were numerous false reports of its eventual safe arrival in Queenstown (present-day Cobh), Ireland, like this one from the March 19th Fredericton Colonial Farmer:

"A telegraph was received at the News Room on Wednesday morning to the effect that the "City of Boston" had arrived at Queenstown. It turned out, however, to be an error, the "City of Antwerp" having been mistaken for her."3

By November, all hope had long since been relinquished, and the family and friends of those lost at sea clung to the report in the Halifax Citizen, which described a bottle washed ashore at Shediac, New Brunswick, containing five pieces of envelopes, on which were written in pencil:

"We are lost...City of Boston...we are all sinking...goodbye...
I should like my..."

James McCain was my 3d great-grand uncle.

Photos used with permission and with credit to:


11851 Census of New Brunswick, Simonds Parish, Carleton County, population returns, Parish of Simonds, schedule L, p.14 (penned), Eastern Section of the Parish of Simonds, in the County of Carleton, N.B., fronting on the St. John River, James McCain; digital image, Automated Genealogy (  : accessed 21 July 2013)

2Daniel F. Johnson's New Brunswick Newspaper Vital Statistics, 1784-1890, Vol. 19, No. 2454. Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB, Canada. ( Accessed 14 July 2013)

3Daniel F. Johnson's New Brunswick Newspaper Vital Statistics, 1784-1890, Vol. 28, No. 1693. Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB, Canada.( Accessed  21 July 2013)


Inman Line, City of Boston, Captain J.J. Halcrow, from New York January 25th 1870, Halifax January 28th 1870, for Liverpool, TheShipsList.

The loss of the CITY OF BOSTON 1870, Old Mercey-Times.

City of Boston - 1870. Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Marine Heritage Database, On The Rocks: Find A Wreck.

No comments:

Post a Comment