- Historic Sites
The first and last trip of the “unsinkable” Titanic
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
Slowly the Titanic moved down the harbor. As she passed the American liner New York, there was a series of loud reports. The New York snapped her moorings and drifted out toward the Titanic , irresistibly drawn by the suction of the great liner’s propellers. For a moment, collision seemed certain, but Captain Smith quickly rang off his engines, and tugs dragged the New York back to her berth. The Titanic ’s passengers went down to lunch, excitedly rehashing the narrow escape.
The meal—Potage Hodge Podge, beefsteak and kidney pie, rice pudding—was richly appropriate to the surroundings. The main saloon, a sort of bastard Jacobean in style, was a labyrinth of fluted white columns and heavily carved alcoves. In an adjoining semi-Jacobean room, passengers quickly caught the habit of sipping after-dinner coffee under a big Aubusson tapestry called “Chasse de Guise.”
But on the afternoon of the tenth, they had little time for coffee. Some lined the rail as the Titanic moved down Spithead and passed the Isle of Wight. Others explored the ship—especially the gym, where instructor T. W. McCawley benignly presided over the mechanical horses, camels and bicycles that seemed to fascinate everybody.
Others began to unpack. As First-Class passenger Marguerite Frolicher put her things away, she noticed a life belt tucked between the ceiling and the top of a wardrobe. “What’s that for,” she teased her steward, “if the ship is meant to be so unsinkable?”
At suppertime, the Titanic dropped anchor off Cherbourg and picked up another collection of glamourous people. It took some time to load them all—not surprising, considering that the Arthur Ryersons alone had sixteen trunks for more comfortable traveling. But by nine o’clock everyone was aboard, the tenders bobbed off into the night, and the Titanic turned west towards Queenstown.
It was nearly 1 P.M. , April 11, when the great ship nosed into Queenstown harbor. Again the anchor chains rattled down, again the tenders chugged alongside; but this time there was nothing glamourous about the people who climbed aboard. Patrick Dooley, Kate Hagardon, Jim Kelly, Denis O’Brien, Bridget O’Neil, Pat Shaughnesay—their names gave them away. They were young Irish emigrants, who had bet everything on a steerage ticket to the New World.
With them came a group of visitors burdened with bundles and bulging grips. These were Irish lace merchants, hoping to make a killing during the hour or so the Titanic lay in the harbor. Within minutes the promenade deck looked like an Eastern bazaar, as the merchants and the First-Class passengers haggled back and forth over the wares. John Jacob Astor, perhaps the most magnificent of all the ship’s company, bought a beautiful lace jacket for $800.
While the passengers haggled, a different kind of discussion was going on one deck below, J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, had called Chief Engineer Bell to his suite, B-52. Now they were going over some plans for the trip, Ismay said it was silly to arrive in New York Tuesday night as originally planned; better make it Wednesday morning instead. He also wanted to see how fast the Titanic would run, so he told Bell to open her up Monday or Tuesday.
It was a strange conversation, typical of Ismay’s ambiguous role on board. He liked to picture himself merely a passenger, just going along for the ride. Yet here he was deciding what time to reach New York and how fast to run the ship. Nor did he bother to consult Captain Smith on any of this.
At 1:45 the Chief Engineer, now thoroughly briefed, went back to his engines; the lace merchants packed up their grips; and Fireman J. Coffy, perhaps lured by the green hills of his native Queenstown, deserted ship. Along with the visitors, he marched down the gangway and steamed off home in the tender.
With a long blast from her whistle, the Titanic weighed anchor, swung in a quarter-circle toward the open sea, and moved slowly out of the harbor. All afternoon she steamed westward along the Irish coast, while the gulls wheeled and screamed in her wake. As dusk settled, the coast fell behind and the Titanic was alone in the open sea.
Thursday turned to Friday, and Friday to Saturday, while shipboard life took on its normal pattern. The usual cliques formed. The worldly group—Archie Butt, Clarence Moore, painter Frank Millet—liked to sit around the smoking room and talk politics. Philadelphia Society—the Wideners, the Thayers, the Carters—liked to dine together in the à la carte restaurant; Monsieur Gatti’s continental cuisine made them easily forget they were passing up a free meal in the dining saloon. The gay young set—typical was Lieutenant Bacon Bjornstrom Steffanson, a dashing Swedish officer attached to the Embassy in Washington—went in for lighthearted card games and late evening refreshments in the Café Parisien. The department store buyers—Spencer Silverthorne of Nugents, Ed Calderhead of Gimbels, Tim McCarthy of Jordan, Marsh—weren’t quite as stylish, but that great American institution, the expense account, was already making its presence known.