Girl Scout Camp-in at COSI (Center of Science and Industry, in Columbus), circa 1978, sitting on the floor for a sing-along.
Oh, they built the ship Titanic
To sail the ocean blue
And they thought they had a ship
That the water couldn’t get through
But the good Lord raised his hand
And said “This ship will never land…”
It was sad when the great ship went down…
About a year later, looking over my Scholastic book order form (God, I loved those things!), I see a book called A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord, about the ship in the song, so I order it. And for the past 40-odd years, I’ve been fascinated by the story. It’s now so familiar to me that I could easily recite it by heart: The gleaming, new ship departing England and Ireland, loaded with both the cream of society, ordinary people in transit, and the steerage classes, many hoping for opportunities in North America. The ship that “God himself could not sink” hits an iceberg and in less than three hours, slips below the waves, taking over 1500 souls with it, with just over 710 surviving. The characters: Captain Smith, Second Officer Lightoller, the outlook Frederick Fleet (who shouted “Iceberg, dead ahead!”), wireless officer Phillips (who switched over from the old CQD distress signal to the brand-new SOS). Naval architect Thomas Andrews, first assisting the evacuation, staring blankly at a painting in the first-class smoking room as the ship he had designed went to its doom. The passengers–the Astors, the Strausses, the Duff Gordons, Molly Brown, and the villanous J. Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star Line who was later vilified in the hearings that followed for failing to go down with the ship. Jack Thayer, whose sketches of the sinking clearly showed the ship broken in two (a theory dismissed until the ship was actually discovered in 1986). The locking of the gates preventing the steerage passengers from reaching the lifeboats. The orchestra playing until the angle of the deck was so steep that they began to slide. And the biggest character of all–the ship itself, with its elegant staircase, Turkish bath, staterooms in a variety of styles, elegant dining facilities, 30′ foot tall reciprocating engines, and just 20 lifeboats for over 2200 passengers and crew.
Lord’s 1955 book relates the tale of the sinking itself in just 57 pages of brilliant writing. The entire book in the version I own is only 164 pages long; 14 of those pages are a complete passenger list that illustrates the sad truth that a greater percentage of first-class men survived than third-class women–regardless of any great ideals of “women and children first.” Lord himself was probably one of the first Titanic disaster junkies. After travelling on the Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship, as a boy, he started drawing Titanic and collecting memorabilia. After completing degrees in history and law, he joined an advertising firm and interviewed survivors in his free time. A Night to Remember was the result, and allowed him to become a full-time writer. The book has never been out of print since its publication. It spawned a 1958 movie, also called A Night to Remember, which I did not see until several years after I read the book, when VHS movies became widely available.
For me, there were more books. The most significant of these was Wyn Craig Wade’s The Titanic: End of a Dream, written in 1979. I purchased my copy in 1984, having checked it out from the library a couple of years earlier. This book focused on the building of the ship and the US Senate hearings that followed its sinking, seeking to answer questions about why and how it sank, and where the blame lay.
The year after, Robert Ballard found the wreck in 12,500 feet of water 370 miles south-southeast of Newfoundland. People had been attempting to find, and possibly salvage, the Titanic almost from the day it sank, always coming up short due to the extreme depth of the wreck and incorrect information about its location. Some of these proposals including using balloons, Vaseline, or ping-pong balls to refloat the ship, which was assumed to be in one piece. Ballard, of course, found that the ship had indeed broken apart before or during sinking. The stern had heavily impacted the sea floor, causing it to pancake and collapse in many areas, while the bow seems to have settled gradually, leaving interiors more or less intact. Ballard continued to explore the wreck, and in 1992 released Titanica, a full-length IMAX film, the first IMAX film I ever saw, featuring footage from one of these expeditions.
A second organization, RMS Titanic, Inc., had a different approach to the wreck: Salvage. While, of course, the ship itself could not be raised, artifacts could be collected, including pieces of the ship itself. In 1986, this group made its first exploration of the wreck site. In 1994, it was appointed the legal salvager of the wreck, and began hosting touring exhibitions of various artifacts (which I saw in both Toronto and Columbus). There was considerable tension between this group and scientists such as Ballard who believed the site should not be touched, especially given the fact that the site is a graveyard for over 1500 people. However, the controversy eventually died down as it became clear that no actual human remains were to be found in the wreck, and RMS Titanic, Inc. pledged not to pull anything off of the wreck itself (sticking to items found in the debris field). Starting in 2009, a rapprochement took place with scientists and preservationists, and there has been cooperation between the two since 2012. This is the group that exhibited a large collection of Titanic artifacts at a semi-permanent installation at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas (which I’ve seen twice), including the largest piece of the ship’s hull ever salvaged (aka “The Big Piece”, which measures 12′ x 26′) and recreations of parts of the ship (including the Grand Stairway). This is where I purchased my Titanic relic: a piece of coal, fashioned into a pendant with the White Star motif of the White Star Line (see the photo at the top of this post). The initial lease was for ten years starting in 2008, but the exhibit still seems to be in place. The company that owns RMS Titanic, Inc. has, unfortunately, declared bankruptcy. Plans were tentatively in place to relocate the artifacts to museums in Southampton and Belfast, but sufficient funds were unable to be raised to purchase the collection in October, 2018. It’s currently unclear as to where the collection will end up.
Short of visiting these museums in Great Britain, the most poignant collection of Titanic-related artifacts is to be found in Halifax at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Recovery operations were conducted out of Halifax, and those who undertook those grim missions brought back many relics, including deck chairs, suitcases, shoes and other items. These ships also brought back the bodies of 328 victims, of which 150 are buried in three cemeteries. Fairview Lawn Cemetery has 121 of these graves, arranged in three curving rows that recall the bow of a ship. These include the grave of an unknown chiled who was recently positively identified as Sidney Leslie Goodwin. That, more than any other piece of Titanic‘s history, bears witness to the tragedy.
A few months after visiting Halifax, a friend offered me a unique opportunity to see a piece of Titanic history. Theories about the hole torn in Titanic’s side by the iceberg have evolved over the years. Originally assumed to be a gaping hole, the wreck site and other evidence pointed to something much less dramatic–a line of smaller holes produced as the iceberg impacted and compressed the hull and rivets broke. But why would rivets break in such a matter? As it turned out, it had everything to do with the steel that these rivets–and the hull itself– was made of and its tendency to become brittle in cold temperatures. It was a Canadian lab that did the tests that gave weight to this theory. Using salvaged pieces from the wreck, the team proved that the steel did, indeed, become brittle when exposed to low temperatures. The lab still has these Titanic fragments, and one day in December, 2017 I got the chance to see them. It was certainly a Titanic aficionado’s geeky dream come true.
Titanic frenzy peaked in 1997, with James Cameron’s epic film of the same name. While the story is grade-A American cheese, the ship itself steals the show from beginning to end. It gives the viewer a real feel for how the ship looked and felt before it sank, including (to my great delight) a few shots of the enormous reciprocating engines. For all of Cameron’s felicities with the script itself, there is little to be faulted in the research and execution of the effects in the movie. It won 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and, at over $2 billion dollars, is still the second-grossing film of all time.
And the song from the beginning of the post? According to this article, popular/folk songs about the Titanic began to appear shortly after the disaster. The version I sang seems to have evolved from an American Negro folk tune. According to Jeff Place, “African-American musicians, in particular, found it noteworthy and ironic that company policies had kept Blacks from the doomed ship; the sinking was also attributed by some to divine retribution.”
It was on one Monday morning just about one o’clock
When that great Titanic began to reel and rock;
People began to scream and cry,
Saying, “Lord, am I going to die?”
It was sad when that great ship went down,
It was sad when that great ship went down,
Husbands and wives and little children lost their lives*,
It was sad when that great ship went down.
When that ship left England it was making for the shore,
The rich had declared that they would not ride with the poor,
So they put the poor below,
They were the first to go.
Today, it’s been 107 years.
Let none be forgotten.
*Note that we took great glee in singing the alternate version of this line:
Uncles and aunts, little children lost their pants.
(Definitely made it less tragic to a fifth-grader).