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The Extraordinary Story of the White Star Liner Titanic

By William Henry Flayhart III
4/10/2012 7:19:20 AM

The most important shipping event in North Atlantic history was the creation of the International Mercantile Marine company (IMM) in 1902. This giant shipping trust was the brainchild of the Philadelphia Quaker shipping magnate Clement Acton Griscom and was made possible by the financial backing of the New York banker J. P. Morgan. Among the many U.S., Belgian, British, Dutch and German lines controlled by the IMM, certainly the most famous among the British-flag steamship lines was the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company-more commonly known as the White Star Line.

MAIDEN VOYAGE: The RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912. Image: By F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Its flagship, the Titanic, was the largest ship in the world when it took its maiden sailing from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912. Weighing 46,328 tons and spanning 852.5 feet long by 92.5 feet wide, she could reach a speed of 21 knots, or about 39 kilometers per hour. The ship could accommodate 2,567 passengers, although on its maiden voyage, it was not fully booked because not every experienced-or wary-traveler cared to face the North Atlantic in April. Only about half of the cabins had been sold, to 1,316 passengers. Their fate, and that of the 892 crew members, would become a part of history.

Floating Palaces

The plan to construct the Titanic and its sister ships came as a direct response to the White Star Line's principal competitor, the Cunard Line, which had just commissioned two new superliners in 1907: the Lusitania and the Mauretania. Both could steam at 25 knots, making them the fastest liners on the North Atlantic.

Bruce Ismay, managing director of the IMM and president and chairman of the White Star Line, decided not to try and chase the Cunard liners, which could cross the Atlantic in five days. Instead he built a trio of the largest ships in the world that would be capable of six-day crossings. They would be less expensive to operate and, perhaps, more attractive to wealthy passengers.

When the Titanic was launched on May 31, 1911, it was the second of the three sister ships and was only 1,004 tons larger than its sister Olympic. Based on its experience with the Olympic, White Star realized it could sell far more first-class cabins and suites than were available. The solution on the Titanic was to enclose a portion of the promenade deck so as to increase the number of suites and to regard a portion of the second-class cabins as interchangeable with first class. The Titanic cost a reported $7.5 million, which was a phenomenal sum for the time.

(In terms of names, some sources indicate that the third sister ship was to be christened the Gigantic, but following the disaster to the Titanic, it was ultimately named the Britannic and completed in 1915. Unfortunately, it hit a mine in the Aegean Sea during World War I while serving as a hospital ship and sank without ever taking a commercial sailing.)

The master of the Titanic was the commodore of the White Star Line, Captain Edward John Smith. He had also been the first master of the Olympic and, therefore, had had a year's familiarity with the flaws and qualities of the new White Star floating palaces. He learned that they responded slowly to their rudders, partially because one of the three propellers was positioned immediately behind the rudder. Thomas Andrews, designer of the ships, brought up this issue with Ismay, but the White Star president expressed his reluctance to delay the construction in order to refine the design. He reportedly commented that the only place these liners would have to maneuver quickly would be in port and that was what you had tugboats for.

Andrews wanted another change as well: a second row of lifeboats that could be launched as soon as the first set was in the water. The result would have been enough lifeboats for all the passengers and crew. Ismay protested that they already had more than the legally required number of lifeboats (16) and the extra boats simply would clutter up the beautiful open expanse of the upper deck, where first-class passengers would want to stroll. Hence, the Titanic sailed with 16 lifeboats capable of accommodating 1,178 human beings out of the 2,200-plus passengers and crew onboard. The regulations governing the number of lifeboats had not been changed since 1894-18 years earlier-and the Titanic was 460 percent larger than the largest ship in the world at the time the outdated rules were published.

Bon Voyage

Promptly at 12:30 P.M. on April 10, 1912, the thunderous blasts of the Titanic's foghorns signified that the liner was preparing to sail as tugs nudged it away from its pier. Tragedy nearly struck immediately as the enormous suction of the huge liner's hull pulled on the U.S. liner New York, snapping the lines holding it to the pier. As a result, the New York's stern swung out toward the Titanic. Quick action by a tugboat caught the New York before it could smash into the Titanic.

The normal custom of the White Star Line ships was to sail from Southampton, England, across the English Channel to Cherbourg, France, to pick up additional passengers. Then during the night the ships would cross to Queenstown, Ireland, where last-minute Royal Mail bags were delivered to the ships and where many of the third-class passengers-often bound for a new life in America-would board from special ferry boats. The Titanic reached Ireland for her mail and final passenger pick-up on April 11.

Among the passengers, thoughts of perishing at sea were likely few and far between. The Titanic was regarded as the last word in naval architecture. Fifteen transverse bulkheads divided her hull into 16 watertight compartments with doors that were controlled electrically. The Titanic was described as "practically unsinkable" by the Shipbuilder's souvenir issue, so confident was everyone about its construction. The confidence, however, did not stop the owners from taking out a $5 million insurance policy on the hull of the ship, covered by such companies as the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company of New York City, with the first premium of $100,000 being paid before the Titanic sailed. Hence, White Star was partially covered against any total loss, and the policy ultimately was honored in full.

So delighted was Ismay with the second of his majestic vessels and the elite passengers who had booked to sail on its maiden voyage that he decided to join them to receive his share of the plaudits. After all, the passenger list included Colonel John Jacob Astor, arguably the wealthiest man in the U.S., and his new wife, who was expecting, and Mr. Isidor Straus, the founder of Macy's Department Store, and his wife. Other distinguished passengers included President William Howard Taft's military attache Archibald Butt; Mr. and Mrs. John B. Thayer, a senior vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and their teenage son Jack; and Mrs. Margaret Brown of Denver, Colo., who was to gain fame as the Unsinkable Molly Brown for taking command of a lifeboat.

Into the Open Sea

The green hills of Ireland swiftly fell away as the Titanic's engines built up to full speed in its afternoon departure from Queenstown. In first class the orchestra played jaunty tunes, and the chefs in the kitchens worked their culinary magic. There was little to do in their cabins for first-class passengers except to change their clothes several times every day in order to have the correct appearance according to the hour. Some wealthy passengers even took more than one cabin so as to have additional closet space for colossal steamer trunks and wardrobes. Anything tagged "not wanted on voyage" was consigned to the appropriate baggage rooms. An upper-grade first-class cabin on the Titanic could cost more than $600 in 1912 (equal to about $13,000 today), and a suite of rooms much more than that. They were enormous sums compared with the earnings of an American laborer ($20 to $30 a month) or a schoolteacher ($200 to $350 a year). On the other hand, one could cross in third class for as little as $26.50, which enabled you to travel on the same ship as the privileged even if the food might best be described as "wholesome."

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