The White Star Line's first four steamships met with great success in the trans-Atlantic market, and the line decided to build two more. The first of these was SS Adriatic, which was built by Harland and Wolff and launched on 17 October 1871; the second was the Celtic.
During the remainder of 1871 and the early part of 1872, Adriatic was fitted out. As a part of this process, a technology new to that era was tried on the ship. Up to this point, ships' cabins were lit with oil lamps, but the builders decided to try new gas lamps on Adriatic. A machine was added to the engine room that made gas from coal, the first ship in the world to have such a system. However, problems with gas leaks could not be overcome, so the system was removed before the ship went into service.
Adriatic left on its maiden voyage on 11 April 1872, sailing from Liverpool to New York, under Captain Sir Digby Murray, who had captained the maiden voyage of the White Star's first ship, the Oceanic the year before. Adriatic was similar in configuration to the earlier Oceanic-class ships, with a single funnel and four masts (highest of which was 150 feet), the first three of which were square-rigged. The hull was painted black in typical White Star fashion, and accommodated two classes, First and Steerage. As the largest of the six White Star Line ships, Adriatic received the designation as the Line's flagship, a title which she held until the larger Britannic came on line in 1874.
A month later, during a subsequent Atlantic crossing to New York, Adriatic maintained an average speed of 14.52 knots and thus won the Blue Riband away from the Cunard Line's Scotia, which had held it since 1866.
Adriatic was involved in several accidents. The first of these occurred in October, 1874, when Adriatic, while sailing parallel with the Cunard Line Parthia, collided with it, with little damage to either ship. In March, 1875, Adriatic rammed the American ship Columbus in New York harbor, and Columbus subsequently sunk. In December of the same year, in St. Georges Channel, Adriatic ran down and sunk the sailing vessel Harvest Queen in an accident that resulted in the loss of all life aboard Harvest Queen. Queen sunk so quickly that the crew of Adriatic could not identify what boat they had hit, and only a records search later showed who the victim had been. On 19 July 1878,Adriatic hit the brig G. A. Pike off of South Wales, killing five crew onboard Pike. Blame was fixed on Adriatic for excessive speed.
In 1884, Adriatic underwent a refit, during which accommodations for 50 Second Class passengers were added. In 1897, she was deemed too old for regular trans-Atlantic service, and was then laid up as a reserve ship for the Line, at Birkenhead. When the second Oceanic entered service in 1899, Adriatic was sold for scrap, arriving in Preston on 12 February.
- Length: 452 feet (138.1 m)
- Beam: 40.9 feet (12.5 m)
- Tonnage: 3,888 gross tons
- Speed: 14.5 knots (service speed)
- Passenger capacity: 850