Ultonia Ledge, Thieves Ledge and the Dredging of Nantasket Roads

It was a warm summer day in the City of Boston, August 5th of 1899, when the Steam Ship Ultonia hit a ledge in Boston harbor, an event which likely spurred a major investment in Boston Harbor’s Shipping Channels. 

The late 1890’s was a time that the volume of transatlantic overseas passenger shipping and trade of raw goods was booming: While the city of Boston was subject to increasing prominence in global trade due to its coastal location, it was challenged to accommodate this new class of powerful deep-draft steamers which began making the journey from England. While the first steam ships had made transatlantic journeys in the earlier part of the 19th century, these new heavy and powerful twin-screw steamers like Ultonia could make the journey in only eight days. The Ultonia was a Liverpool-based Cunard steamer that made the journey from England to Boston weekly starting in 1898. It was a predecessor to some of its larger and better known Cunard Line steamers such as Carpathia and Lusitania. While leaving Boston for Liverpool on the 5th of August, 1899, the Ultonia’s hull hit a ledge on the ocean’s floor roughly a mile and a half southeast of Boston Light, while exiting the main channel at Nantasket Roads. This event prompted an urgent survey of the area for unknown rocks or wrecks, neither of which was found.

An undated photo of the Ultonia below, courtesy of ShipSpotting.com. For a full view, click on the photo below:

© Dulko

The conclusion was that Boston’s main shipping channel would have ideally been 35 feet deep at low tide, but it was far less deep in many places. At this time in our country’s history, before the outbreak of the first World War, or even the showcasing of America’s Great White Fleet the country seemed to be at a strategic inflection point with regards to shipping and trade: Would it stand up and make the necessary investment to become a port of great international prestige, or would it do nothing and take its chances at being limited in its ability to receive the newest largest ships? Surely this would be a challenge of economic ideals, as the harbor and its channels were the ideal “public good”- a piece of utilitarian infrastructure which many private interests were indeed interested in, but would not be able or willing to finance on their own! Fortunately, the US Congress was up to the job and in June 1902 approved a dredging plan which would deepen the harbor’s great Nantasket Roads channel to a depth of 35 feet at low tide, at a cost of nearly eight million dollars. But what was the catalyst for such a piece of legislation? I would make the case that it was at least in part this certain incident involving Ultonia: Our city was not about to jeopardize great potential economic gain over a shallow shoal or ledge.

The Ultonia Ledge, as it exists on nautical charts today was identified and spurred dredging activity that would ensure that the big ships would be safe in our harbor. As one can see on the chart, the Ultonia Ledge extends far East of Point Allerton and is as shallow as 21 feet. Ships exiting the harbor will now typically pass to the North of Thieves Ledge, observing the green marker, instead of passing to its south.

boston harbor

Source: NOAA Nautical Chart. See NOAA.gov for disclaimer.

Modern Day: Flash forward one hundred and fifteen years…..a light container ship exiting the harbor through Nantasket roads, as seen from the vicinity of Ultonia Ledge on a blustery November day. Smaller ships and vessels like the one pictured below will still use the Nantasket Roads exit. However, the largest, deepest drawing modern cruise ships, tankers and cargo ships will tend to use the wider and deeper President Roads Channel:

tanker in channel

Thieves Ledge: A bird crap-covered green buoy marking the Thieves Ledge, a marker outgoing vessels would steer to the south of prior to the Ultonia’s incident. (Note the Gloucester wind turbines visible in the distance).

boston harbor

The Ultonia was surely a meaningful (although obscure!) part of Boston Harbor’s history. The strange ledge was not economical to completely blast away given its large size and the availability of deep water elsewhere in the vicinity. The ship and its incident described above was surely an influencing factor in the development of our great port. As for the Ultonia, she continued service to Boston until 1906, then began serving ports in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, she met her demise in 1917, when she was torpedoed by a  German U-Boat off the British Coast.


“Hit Something”: Boston Daily Globe, August 6th, 1899
“Sweep Channel”: Boston Daily Globe, August 9th, 1899
“Buoy Placed to Warn Mariners Off”: Boston Daily Globe, August 15th, 1899

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