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The Titanic: 100 years after the event that shocked the world

One hundred years after vanishing below the icy waters of the North Atlantic, thePostcard, LAC R13349-260-0 / Carte de poste, BAC R13349-260-0 Titanic remains a subject of interest for many across the globe and particularly for Canadians because of the many fascinating connections which exist between our country and the fate of this renowned ocean liner.  

The Titanic was a marvel of her time and immediately captured public imagination. Although she remained afloat for only a brief time, she made an indelible impact on history. The Olympic-class Royal Mail Ship (R.M.S.) Titanic was owned by the White Star Line and constructed at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland, United Kingdom.  She was to join her sister ship R.M.S. Olympic on the trans-Atlantic route to compete with Cunard Line's R.M.S. Lusitania and R.M.S. Mauretania and with the smaller Canadian Pacific Line vessel, S.S. Empress of Ireland.

On 10 April 1912, the Titanic embarked on her maiden voyage sailing from Southampton, England to New York City.  After stopping at two ports to pick up additional passengers, Titanic headed into the Atlantic with 2,200 people on board.  As she steamed ahead, passengers and crew settled into the comfortable routine of life at sea.

Younger sister of the Olympic (1911), and followed by the Britannic (1914), the Titanic was the second of three great ships constructed to accommodate passenger trade on the North Atlantic route. Titanic took three years to construct and was said, by some, to be "unsinkable." This story may have originated from her many safety features, promoted, along with her size and luxury, by her proud owner, the White Star Line. Passenger accommodation ranged from luxurious first class suites in the Georgian and Louis XVI styles to rather more functional emigrant steerage.  Captain Edward J. Smith commanded the Titanic and her large crew of 860, which included officers, able seamen, quartermasters, firemen coal trimmers, stewards, restaurant staff, postal clerks, cooks, engineers, and barbers, to name a few. As a Royal Mail ship, Titanic even had her own onboard post office and boasted her own telephone system, restaurants, reception rooms, libraries, swimming pool, and barber shops!  She truly was a floating city.

Marconi Wireless Station, Collection of Port Morien Station c1912 / Station de radiotélégraphie Marconi, Collection de la station de Port Morien, c1912Although it was known that icebergs were in the area, Titanic was doing over 20 knots (about 37 kilometres per hour) as she approached the coast of Newfoundland.  April 14 was a clear, calm night. At 11:40 PM, the lookouts spotted an iceberg and, despite evasive action, the floating mass of ice struck Titanic's starboard (right) side scraping and rupturing the hull for 300 feet. Despite watertight doors, the volume of water overwhelmed the ship's pumps within 20 minutes. The watertight bulkheads were not sealed to the deck above and, as each filled, water flowed over the top into the next compartment.  The ship's fate was sealed. Stewards led people to the boat decks and at 12:20 AM lifeboats began to swing out over the ship's sides. Some refused to leave the ship, others expected help.  As a result, the first lifeboats pulled away partly empty. Distress signals sent by Marconi wireless operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, continued from 12:15 AM until 2:17 AM, three minutes before the Titanic slipped beneath the waves.

The tragic fates of many on board are well-known. Survivors relate that throughout the ordeal the band played music to comfort the passengers, including ragtime tunes and the hymn "Nearer my God, to thee" as the Titanic went down. Many employees on board were lost, including Thomas Andrews, the ship's designer whose bravery and exemplary behaviour continued throughout that evening. Captain Smith also went down with his ship, while J. Bruce Ismay, a director of the White Star Line, secured a place in one of the lifeboats; he was later heavily criticized for this act and for the lack of lifeboats on board. Below decks, the ship's 35 engineers, led by Joseph Bell, all heroically remained at their posts in the pump-room, dynamo room, and stokehold sacrificing themselves to keep the pumps and electric lights going much longer than expected - until just minutes before the ship's final plunge. George Wright House, Government of Nova Scotia / Maison George Wright, gouvernement de la Nouvelle-Écosse

One of the many famous individuals who lost his life that night was Charles Melville Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Railway, who was bringing back dining room furniture for his newly built Château Laurier Hotel in Ottawa. Another passenger was wealthy Halifax businessman George Wright. In 1912, Wright travelled to England and booked return passage on the Titanic, drowning when the luxury liner sank. While in England, Wright had revised his will, leaving $226,000 to worthy causes and his house on Young Avenue in Halifax to the Council of Women. The George Wright House is a well-known landmark in Halifax and is, architecturally speaking, one of the more important houses in Nova Scotia dating from this era.

The high casualty rate resulting from the sinking was largely due to the fact that, although complying with the regulations of the time, the ship carried only 20 lifeboats - enough for 1,178 people. A disproportionate number of men died due to the "women and children first" protocol enforced by the ship's crew. The Titanic's survivors were eventually rescued by the Cunard liner Carpathia, which steamed to the area at high speed on hearing Titanic's calls for assistance at 12:25 PM; she arrived on scene at about 4:00 AM. Ships were dispatched from Halifax, the closest major port to the disaster, with the grim task of retrieving victims; they later returned with 209 bodies.

St Mary's Basilica, Glenn Euloth 2009 / Basilique Ste Mary's, Glenn Euloth 2009Canon Kenneth Hinds of All Saints Cathedral and local undertaker John Snow both travelled on the S.S. MacKay-Bennett, one of the ships that assisted in the recovery operation. Amongst the many bodies recovered were those of businessman John Jacob Astor, the richest man aboard Titanic, and band leader Wallace Hartley, who was recovered with his music case. As the victims' remains returned to Halifax, they were brought to the Mayflower Curling Rink (established 1905) which was used as a temporary morgue; it was destroyed five years later in the Halifax explosion.

Religious services were held at St. Mary's Basilica, Brunswick Street United Church, St. George's Round Church, All Saints' Cathedral and St. Paul's Church. Fifty nine victims were returned to their families. Another 150 were buried in three Halifax cemeteries between May and June 1912: 19 in the Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery, 10 in the Baron de Hirsch Jewish Cemetery, and 121 in the Fairview Lawn Cemetery. Although some were given larger and more elaborate gravestones, most of the markers are simple granite blocks paid for by the White Star Line in 1912. St. Paul's continues holding special services, including services for Titanic victims.

In 1985, the Titanic's location was finally pinpointed by a joint French-American expedition led by Dr Robert Ballard. Revisiting the site in 2004, Ballard noted how many items had been removed since the initial discovery. Unprotected by law, the wreck faces both natural decay and damage by visitors and salvage operations. Several countries have developed an agreement to protect the undersea wreckage. The Titanic will be regarded as an international maritime memorial with regulated site visits, and a system will be established to document items removed from the site, making them available to the public.  The agreement is an important step in protecting this historic ship from further harm and in recognizing Titanic, NOAA IFR URIthe vessel as a memorial.

This terrible event is recognized as one of the worst peacetime marine disasters recorded. The subsequent enquiry following the sinking led to the re-examination of maritime safety procedures, which had not kept pace with the rapid growth in the size of ships. It would seem that a series of events including design flaws, human errors and bad luck all combined to produce a catastrophe that will continue to grip public imagination for the next hundred years. 


"Titanic: the Unsinkable Ship," exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax.