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“SS Columbia”, First Electrified Liner

The famed inventor Thomas Alva Edison was hard at work in his Menlo Park laboratory perfecting the incandescent light bulb when he was interrupted by a visitor named Henry Villard. Villard, an old friend of Edison had made a fortune in railroads and had visited Edison’s “Village of Light” exhibition in which Edison had illuminated a whole town with electric light. By that time, June of 1879, Edison had been able to keep his incandescent bulb illuminating for an average of 686 hours.
Villard was planning to build a steamship in the class of the Titanic, Lusitania and Bismarck. It was to be named SS Columbia. The ship was to be built by the Oregon Steamship Company as hull number 193 by the John Roach and Sons shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania. The ship was to be 332 feet long from bow to stern and her beam was to be 38.5 feet. Her draft was 23 feet, weight was 2,721 tons. She was powered by six massive boilers and carried a Brigantine sail layout just in case there should be an engine failure. The sails also served to assist the two steam engines by increasing the speed of the vessel in a favorable wind. In addition to a capacity of 850 passengers, the ship had massive cargo space. It was rumored at the time the cargo space was big enough to carry a cargo of 200 railroad cars and 13 steam locomotives.

The ship was considered to be one of the most luxurious ships of the time. She boasted decorations of Hungarian oak wood panels, crystal glass, and telephone connections from the bridge to many rooms. The unique luxury feature of the SS Columbia was that she would be equipped with over one hundred light bulbs. She would be the first large vessel to be equipped with a lighting system equal to the system Edison had created at Meno Park. Space was provided for four “Long Legged Mary-Ann” electromagnetic dynamos installed in a special room below decks. Three 110-volt dynamos were connected by a belt to a countershaft powered by vertical engines. The electric lamps illuminated the navigation lights, first-class staterooms, and the main saloon. Interestingly, when a passenger in the first class wanted the light turned on or off they would have to call the steward who opened a locked box to switch on the lights. There were backup oil lamps in the first-class cabins and in rooms not electrified.
During construction of the ship the shipyard owner, John Roach, refused to allow Edison’s crew to install the system while the ship was in his shipyard. Roach considered electrification to be a safety hazard aboard a ship. When the SS Columbia cleared the shipyard, she was towed to a Wall Street pier where the Edison crew installed the electrification system. The system was successfully demonstrated on May 2, 1880.

Despite the many safety devices Edison installed and the complete confidence of the owner Mr. Henry Villard, insurance companies refused to underwrite the vessel for several months after she was first put into service. The doubters were proven wrong and passengers began to flock to experience the first electrically illuminated passenger ship. The SS Columbia left on her maiden voyage in July of 1880. She sailed from New York to Portland, Oregon with a stop at San Francisco then on to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil where she offloaded her cargo of railroad cars and steam locomotives. By August of 1880, she was back in Portland, Oregon her home port. The ship was a great success and enjoyed a sterling reputation. In 1889 the paddle steamer SS Alaskan broke apart and sank, fortunately, the SS Columbia was able to rescue all four of the survivors.
In an article written by Mathew Anderson, (SS Columbia, the Lost Ship Who Lit the World), October 23, 2016,, Anderson relates the tragedy of the SS Columbia. “The unknown story about the SS Columbia and its untold history. A ship that’s global impact has changed the way we live forever.”
After 1900 the plight of the SS Columbia grew grim. She had been damaged in a collision with the passenger ferry Berkely. Then in 1906, she was in a float dry dock in San Francisco undergoing a retrofit when an earthquake hit the city. The force of the earthquake caused the dry dock to sink and capsized the SS Columbia. Repairs were made and she was refloated and moved to Eureka California where permanent repairs were completed. Back in service by July of 1920, she encountered rough seas on a trip between Portland and San Francisco. There was heavy fog which should have caused her captain, Peter Doran, to slow down to a safe speed. Instead, he threw caution to the wind and continued at full speed. Just past midnight on July 21, 1907, in heavy fog, his ship collided with the lumber schooner San Pedro. It is believed the schooner hit the starboard bow of the steamer.
The SS Columbia sank quickly taking with her eighty-eight souls including all of the children aboard among the two hundred passengers and crew. It happened so quickly that only half of the lifeboats were launched. Survivors recalled the stern rising quickly and the bow diving down into the water. Experts explained that although the ship had water-tight compartments, the bow collision would have ruptured the forward bulkheads and caused the ship to sink in eight and a half minutes. The schooner San Pedro despite being half-sunk herself took on survivors. The San Pedro remained afloat because of her cargo of lumber which kept her from sinking. In time additional rescuers arrived from the SS Roanoke and the SS George W. Elder.
Mathew Anderson wrote in the story cited above, “Columbia’s remains lie quiet and untouched at most around 500 fathom (3,000 feet) below the ocean surface off Cape Mendocino, California. Though the wreck’s exact position is unknown, the true depth may be closer or further from the surface. Never again will her light bulbs shine, the last one having gone out as she sank. Once the light of the world, Columbia will forever sit in perpetual darkness, her future unknown. In one final twist to the story, her original Edison generators thankfully survived the sinking. When Columbia was retrofitted in 1895 by the General Electric Corporation, her four antiquated Edison dynamos were removed and replaced with four newer counterparts. Two of the dynamos seem to have been lost to history, but two survive in preservation. In 1935, General Electric donated two of Columbia’s original dynamos to the Smithsonian Institution and The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan respectively. While the Smithsonian briefly mentions the Columbia and displays an oil painting of her at its electric lighting exhibit, the dynamo itself is in storage and is unviewable by the public. The Henry Ford however has put their dynamo on display in its exhibit. The last true piece of a forgotten page in the book of World History that can be visited and admired by anyone.