Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Titanic Tragedy

Last Friday we saw the exhibit of artifacts brought up from the Titanic. The exhibit was well done as well as emotionally affecting, for the curators focused as much on the passengers of the Titanic as they did on the physical items of the ship.

We were handed a "boarding pass" when we entered the exhibit. On one side was a facsimile of the White Star Line's pass. On the other was our name, our port of embarkation, and a brief biography. I was May Peel, a well-known novelist, returning from Europe with her novelist husband, Jacques Futrelle, who had just signed several book contracts. We were traveling in First Class. Hubs, on the other hand, was a Danish immigrant, relocating to Detroit with his wife and six children to work as a machinist. Originally scheduled to sail on another ship, a coal strike delayed their sailing. White Star Line offered them passage on Titanic and they took it. Third Class on Titanic cost more, but the accommodations and food were superior to those of other lines. In fact, Titantic's Second Class was as good as First Class on many other lines.

Besides passengers, Titanic carried a good deal of commercial cargo. Their freight rates were higher, but because the ship was considered unsinkable, the marine insurance costs were lower. Some of the cargo included automobiles, perfume samples, clothing samples, and art work. The RMS before Titanic's name indicated she was a "Royal Mail Steamer," and postal clerks were busy all voyage sorting letters loaded in Southampton, Cherbourg, and Queenstown, Ireland.

The exhibit began with the construction of Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic. Much care and thought were put into the design of these two ships, including such safety features as a double-walled hull and water-tight compartments. They were designed to be able to make port even if four compartments were flooded.

In order to get the ship built on time, hydraulic riveting was used, although riveting was done by hand, using teams of two men and two boys, in smaller spaces. She had four steam whistles, although two were dummies--only the two on the two front funnels worked. Her engines were huge and consumed an enormous amount of coal. She carried twenty lifeboats--although she was designed to carry more, some were removed to provide more promenade space for the First Class passengers. Still, the twenty lifeboats were more than what was required at the time by either Britain or the U.S.

Titanic was designed so that the passengers never mingled with nor saw much of the crew. They had separate dining rooms and sleeping quarters which they reached by their own passageways. Still, being a steward or a maid on a White Star Line ship was considered a good job. The engine room was hot and dirty, but the men who worked there were a proud bunch.

Much attention was paid to detail, from the artwork on the walls to the Grand Staircase to the design of the Smoking Lounge for men and the Sitting Room for ladies. Children were welcome and the Verandah Cafe was designed with a tile floor where the children could play games. In fact, one family, emigrating from France to Haiti, changed their passage from the France to the Titanic because of the restrictions the France placed on children.

The exhibit uses quotes from passengers, crew, and those involved in designing and building the Titanic to provide context for the events. Some were worried that declaring a ship "unsinkable" was insulting God and had a bad feeling. Others saw the Titanic as an incredible feat of modern engineering and science.

None of them thought about the human factor.

Because of the coal strike, the Titanic left Southampton a bit earlier than planned. The binoculars for the crow's nest were either misplaced or never brought on board. (Why this wasn't noticed when the ship left Southampton and the binoculars replaced in Cherbourg or Queenstown is not mentioned.) Would the binoculars have allowed the two lookouts to spot the iceberg earlier, allowing the Titanic to complete its turn in time to avoid it?

Many of the crew survived, mostly because they were manning the lifeboats. Their accounts of the events of that night are heart-wrenching. There is a block of ice that visitors are encouraged to touch--and then we are told that the water was much colder because of the lower freezing point of salt water. Most people died of hypothermia, not drowning.

And then there is the list of names. There are four categories: First Class, Second Class, Third Class, and Crew. Those categories are divided into those who survived and those who did not. Most First Class passengers survived, as did the crew. Most Third Class passengers perished, including entire families.

There are some notable heroes. John Jacob Astor put his pregnant wife in a lifeboat, but did not join her. Isidore Straus, owner of Macy's Department store, urged his wife to get into a lifeboat and she refused, stating that they would die as they had lived: together. Margaret Brown, immortalized as "Molly" on stage and film, took over her lifeboat when the crewman on board had a mental breakdown and encouraged the other passengers to row. Several children were placed in lifeboats, separated from their parents. Women in the lifeboats took these children under their wing and, in some cases, ended up adopting them.

The last part of the exhibit was the search for and discovery of Titanic. They showed pictures of what they found, including a complete set of dishes, lying unbroken in neat rows on the ocean floor. The cabinet that had stored them had rotted away around them. There is a 15-foot section of the hull and a piece we could touch. There were explanations of the science involved in preserving the paper, the leather, the porcelain, the metal that has survived. There is a discussion of the latest danger to the Titanic: iron-eating microbes that are turning the steel back into basic iron ore.

All told, it took me two hours to go through the exhibit--but I read and looked at everything. (Hubs, who has been to several museums with me, is used to this and found a bench. DS#2 has not had as much experience as Hubs. When I got to the end, he said, "Finally!")

As it had in the film, what affected me most were the stories of the passengers, especially those in Third Class. They were coming to America, full of hope and dreams, carrying the tools of their trade. They were meeting their brothers and sisters, their aunts and uncles. One Second Class passenger was a priest, coming to New York to preside at the wedding of his brother. He stayed behind, giving comfort and praying.

And the children--there were so many! I think that's what surprised me the most. All those hopes and dreams, the parents sacrificing surety for the promise of a new and better life--gone.

The Titanic exhibit is coming to other venues. Check out their website,, for venues, dates, and more information.

On the March Hare scale: 4.5 out of 5 Golden Boarding Passes