- Historic Sites
The first and last trip of the “unsinkable” Titanic
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
Able Seaman William Lucas scampered up a ladder that dangled down the side of the new White Star liner Titanic. It was 11:50 A.M. —ten minutes before Southampton sailing time-on Wednesday, April 10, 1912. The gangplanks were already up, and Lucas was the last man aboard. A dozen stokers who appeared just after him were told they were too late.They were missing the maiden voyage to New York of the newest and largest ship in the world. Her weight: 46,328 gross tons, 66,000 tons displacement. Her dimensions: 882.5 feet long, 92.5 feet wide, 60.5 feet from waterline to boat deck, or 175 feet from keel to the top of her four huge funnels. She was, in short, eleven stories high and four city blocks long.
A most arresting feature was her watertight construction. She had a double bottom and was divided into sixteen watertight compartments. These were formed by fifteen watertight bulkheads running clear across the ship. She could float with any two compartments flooded, and since no one could imagine anything worse than a collision at the juncture of two compartments, she was labeled “unsinkable.”
But what especially impressed people were her accommodations. Until recently the Atlantic voyage had been a rather Spartan affair. Even ashore, people were just getting used to modern plumbing, electric push buttons and similar conveniences. The Titanic had everything: banks of elevators; Turkish bath; swimming pool; squash court; gymnasium; Café Parisien, completely fitted with real ivy and live French waiters.
“There will never be another like her,” reflects Baker Charles Burgess, who is probably the last Titanic crewman still on active service. In 43 years on the Atlantic run Burgess has seen them all, and he still thinks no other ship compares with her: “Take the dining saloon. The Olympic didn’t even have a carpet, but the Titanic -ah, you sank in it up to your knees. And there’s the furniture: so heavy you could hardly lift it. And that paneling. … They can make them bigger and faster, but it was the care and effort that went into her. She was a beautiful, wonderful ship.”
Burgess’ reflections are typical. The Titanic has cast a spell on all who built and sailed her. So much so that, as the years go by, she grows ever more fabulous. Many survivors now insist she was “twice as big as the Olympic.” Actually they were sister ships, with the Titanic just 1,004 tons larger. Others recall golf courses, regulation tennis courts, a herd of dairy cows and other little touches that exceeded even the White Star Line’s penchant for luxury.
No wonder the maiden voyage of this breath-taking ship proved irresistible to so many people—the Countess of Rothes, off to visit her husband’s new fruit farms in California; the George Wideners, who had been shopping for art treasures and Eleanor Widener’s trousseau; sportsman Clarence Moore, who had been buying up foxhounds for the Loudoun Hunt; Major Archibald Butt, President Taft’s military aide, who had just delivered a White House message to the Pope; and so on.
Along with the great came the not even near-great: businessmen; department store buyers; quiet, middle-class English families moving to America; teachers; clergyman; 78 Finnish immigrants bound for new homesteads in the West.
One and all, they trooped aboard throughout the morning of April 10. Meanwhile the windlasses clanked and the winches rattled away, as the last of the Titanic ’s cargo was swung aboard. It was worth only $420,000, but in its way it matched the passenger list—a priceless jeweled copy of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam; 30 cases of golf clubs and tennis rackets for A. G. Spaulding; a cask of china for Tiffany’s; a case of gloves for Marshall Field; a new English automobile for passenger William E. Carter; 76 cases of something called dragon’s blood consigned to Brown Brothers, Harriman.
Now it was almost noon, and Captain Edward J. Smith prepared to cast off. As senior captain, he always took the big White Star ships on their maiden voyages. But this time was something special. He had been 38 years in the company’s service—he was almost 60—and would retire after this final, crowning trip.
At 12 he ordered the lines freed and rang the engine room telegraph. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the huge Titanic inched away from her dock. As people realized that the gap was growing between the liner and her pier, yells of good-by filled the air. But there was no special ceremony signalizing the maiden voyage, and Second-Class passenger Lawrence Beesley felt mildly cheated.