World's biggest ship drew crowds to Old Point

Nobody knows how many people crowded the shore at Old Point Comfort on the afternoon of Aug. 3, 1860, standing tip-toe and craning their necks to get the first glimpse of one of historys greatest engineering marvels.

But as the colossal black plumes from the five towering smokestacks of the leviathan British steamship Great Eastern billowed over the horizon, the kitchen at the Hygeia Hotel was so hard at work that on one day alone during the vessels visit it served more than 10,000 meals.

So tightly packed was the resort with extra mattresses, sleeping mats and blankets including not just its guestrooms but also the dining room, ballroom, saloon and porches that the commander at Fort Monroe had his men erect 25 huge campaign tents, only to see them fill so fast that throngs of sightseers slept on the grass.

As a Richmond reporter noted, Every tent was filled, and 50 more would have been crowded.

The only thing bigger than the vast crowds excitement was the mammoth 22,000-ton, 692-foot-long, six-masted iron ship, which loomed so large in height, breadth and length that when it anchored off Old Point the contrast with the gaggle of steamers, sailing vessels and log canoes swarming around it made observers gasp.

The Great Eastern was big ridiculously big. ... Can you imagine what it must have been like to see it? This was progress. This was visionary.— Mariners' Museum curator Marc Nucup

The Great Eastern was big ridiculously big. It was a generational ship much, much bigger t....

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