Yes, this was it, the park officer said when a man with a rather bulky camera asked if he had found the right place. ”Our famous pier,” she said.
Pier 54, a few steps west and south of West 14th Street, is not much to look at these days: a rusted frame of an entrance, a partly collapsed deck, a lot of cracked pavement with weeds poking up.
How different it was 100 years ago. On a rainy night in April 1912, Pier 54 was the center of attention for the city and the world. A crowd estimated at 30,000 people – roughly the entire population of Orange, N.J., in 2010 – filled the surrounding streets. They wanted to see who came out of Pier 54’s impressive-looking shed, designed by the same architectural firm that had designed Grand Central Terminal.
They wanted to see who had survived the Titanic disaster.
Pier 54 was where the Carpathia docked after picking up some 700 passengers from the Titanic, mostly those who had managed to scramble into the lifeboats. Would Mrs. Astor come down the Carpathia’s gangplank?
What about J. Bruce Ismay, the head of the White Star Line, which had owned the Titanic? The women-and-children-first edict had not applied to him: He had clambered into the lifeboat some survivors called the ”millionaires’ special.”
A hundred years later, Pier 54 is part of Hudson River Park. ”The marine borers are eating at the wooden pilings,” said Vivian Liao, a spokeswoman for the Hudson River Park Trust, the group responsible for the pier. She said the trust needed about $200 million to redo a dozen or so piers, including Pier 54, but money has been short.
Pier 54 is hardly the only relic of the Titanic disaster in a city that was scarred by the sinking of the unsinkable ship. Straus Park, at Broadway and 106th Street, commemorates Isidor Straus, an owner of Macy’s, and his wife, Ida. They were passengers on the Titanic and died together when she refused to board a lifeboat without him.
Across town is the William T. Stead Memorial, on the Central Park side of Fifth Avenue, opposite 91st Street. Stead was a British journalist who had been a passenger on the Titanic.
And then there are the two hotels – the one at Jane and West Streets now known as the Jane Hotel, and the one across the West Side Highway from Pier 54, now known as the Liberty Inn.
Survivors with nowhere else to go were taken to the first, owned in 1912 by the American Seamen’s Friend Society. The writer George Jean Nathan described it as ”the greatest nonresident club in the world.” It rented rooms to sailors for a quarter and had a swimming pool, a bowling alley and a chapel.
The Liberty Inn, known in 1912 as the Strand, now has ”beautiful rooms with hourly rates,” according to a Google search. Its Web site adds, ”We do not take reservations.”
The historian Mike Wallace, an author of ”Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898,” said a ”for-certain” answer about what the Strand was like in 1912 was elusive. But he said it ”seems likeliest to have been a sailors’ haunt, and can assume the beds were at least warm.”
The New York Times had reported in 1910 that the Strand was one of ”many well-known cafes” whose all-night licenses were revoked on orders from Mayor William J. Gaynor. He was pushing to make New York a dry city on Sundays, and was angry that the licenses had been approved without his knowledge.
The Strand was where The Times rented rooms and installed special telephone lines as the Carpathia steamed toward New York with the passengers the world wanted to hear from. The editors sent reporters to the pier with orders to buttonhole survivors and then run into the Strand and dictate their notes on one of the telephone lines, which were connected to the newsroom in Times Square.
Johnathan Thayer, the archivist of the Seamen’s Church Institute, said many New Yorkers thought of Lower Manhattan as ”sailor town” in those days. ”That whole neighborhood was loaded with boardinghouses where the services of women and free-floating alcohol were readily available,” he said.