The sinking of the RMS Titanic: A course of history

One hundred years ago, when the ocean liner broke apart with a roar of grinding metal and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the disaster sent ripples of shock and amazement around the globe.

The Titanic, which sank in 1912.

Some of them lapped across Pennsylvania. Some of them still do.

In the wake of the sinking, which claimed 1,514 lives, stories of survival, death and near misses emanating from the disaster fascinated the public, which had been led to believe the White Star Line’s star vessel, the world’s largest ship at the time of its launching, was unsinkable.

For one central Pennsylvania giant, Titanic was the road not taken.

Wealthy candymaker , but later changed his plans and did not board. Had he perished in the sinking, the central Pennsylvania landscape might be a much poorer place, absent landmarks such as the Hershey Gardens, Hotel Hershey and Hershey Theatre.

“A lot of iconic stuff in the landscape might not be there,” said Jim McMahon, historian at the Milton Hershey School.

Hershey’s death would not have been certain, but likely. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew members who did board, only 710 lived to tell their stories, most of them women and children.

“He would not have been someone who put himself first,” said Pam Whitenack, director of the Hershey Community Archive and one of the foremost experts on the chocolate magnate. “He would have worked to save others.”

‘People … acted nearly crazy’

The public appetite for survivors’ stories was voracious.

That’s why The Patriot, a forerunner of The Patriot-News, ran a front-page remembrance from Titanic survivor Nora Keane, 48, who had been returning from Ireland to her home in Harrisburg. She was rescued from a lifeboat by RMS Carpathia, which was the closest ship to Titanic when it went down.

Keane, who boarded at Queensland, Ireland, was sleeping in her third-class bunk when the ship hit the ice on the night of April 14, 1912. It sank in the early morning hours of April 15.

“The ship was going — I don’t know how fast — but when it struck it broke and the front of the ship pointed down,” Keane recalled in a telegram the newspaper published on April 19. “We had few clothes on. Only what we did gather up. The night was cold, but at first we didn’t mind it much. People cried and acted nearly crazy.”

Keane, who later owned a pub on Paxton Street in Harrisburg, eventually returned to live in Ireland, where she died in 1944.

Many were not so lucky. Some of the rich and famous aboard the Titanic were not spared, perhaps another reason the sinking remains vivid in the public consciousness nearly 100 years later.

Among the dead was millionaire John Jacob Astor, who built the Astoria, Knickerbocker and St. Regis hotels in New York City. His pregnant wife, Madeleine, survived.

Also perishing was Isidor Straus, owner of Macy’s department store in New York. His wife, Ida, was offered a seat in a lifeboat, but declined, choosing to stay with her husband. “Where you go, I go,” she reportedly said.

The sheer randomness of the tragedy — reports indicate there were 500 open seats on the lifeboats even as people were drowning by the hundreds — is undoubtedly part of Titanic’s continuing appeal. The ship’s sinking was a combination of bad luck, design flaws and some poor decisions by the ship’s officers.

The thought of wealthy men drowning in their tuxedos is also compelling.

Add it up, and we can’t seem to get enough of Titanic.

raised from the sunken wreckage, more than 52,000 people paid to see it, making it Whitaker’s most popular indoor exhibit. A reprise in 2010, featuring several new artifacts, also did well.

“The Titanic had cutting-edge technology and it failed us,” said Kathy McCorkle, executive director of the Historical Society of Dauphin County, which will host a re-creation of a first-class dinner aboard Titanic on Saturday night at the John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion in Harrisburg. The event is sold out, despite the $150 ticket price. “Here was a ship that was supposed to be safest ever, and it wasn’t safe.”

A lover of innovation

Technology was the reason Milton S. Hershey wanted to be on Titanic.

The candymaker was a lover of technology, and the giant steamer represented the height of maritime expertise in the Edwardian Age. So, in December 1911, Hershey wrote a $300 check to the White Star Line, a deposit toward the cost of a first-class stateroom on Titanic’s maiden voyage.

“His interest in the Titanic was its newness, its innovation,” said Whitenack, who numbers Hershey’s canceled check among the 1.5 million documents in the Hershey archives. “Those are qualities that Hershey was really attracted to.”

Due to pressing business concerns, Hershey ultimately took passage a few days earlier on the German liner Amerika, arriving safely in New York City days before Titanic sank. His ailing wife, Catherine, remained in Europe.

She later expressed gratitude that neither she nor her husband was aboard the doomed ship.

“Just heard of the sinking of the big steamer,” she said in a letter to her mother-in-law, Fanny Hershey, which she wrote in Bad Kissingen, Germany. “How thankful I am God directs us to safety in our travels.”

Catherine Hershey died in 1915, but Milton S. Hershey lived until 1945. In the years between 1912 and his death, he remade the central Pennsylvania landscape.

Some elements of Hershey’s legacy were already in place when Titanic sailed.

Hersheypark existed in 1912, but it was primarily as a recreational spot for Hershey workers. It’s impossible to say whether it would be the sprawling, roller-coaster laden tourist destination we know today.

His chocolate plant in the company town named after him was already the world’s largest, using machinery that revolutionized commercial chocolate making.

The forerunner of the Milton Hershey School, then known as the Hershey Industrial School, opened in 1910. And the Hersheys already had signed the legal documents to create the Hershey Trust, but it likely would not be the billion-dollar enterprise we know today.

“He took risks with his money,” Whitenack said of Hershey. “Had he died, it’s hard to say whether those who would have taken over his interests would have been as willing to take those risks. They may have had more of a caretaker mentality.”

Pull from beneath the waves

Our fascination with Titanic seems boundless, and the 100th anniversary of the sinking is once again proving it.

  • The Historical Society’s seven-course dinner on Saturday, taken directly from one of Titanic’s final menus, will feature cream of barley soup, poached salmon, chicken Lyonnaise and minted green pea timbales, plus asparagus with champagne-saffron vinaigrette, peaches in chartreuse jelly and Waldorf pudding. Edwardian dress is optional.

“It actually is the last meal served in first class,” McCorkle said.

  • On April 4, filmmaker James Cameron released a 3-D version of his 1997 film “Titanic,” which has earned more than $1.8 billion worldwide. It was the first film to crack the billion-dollar mark at the box office.

Since its release, the film has earned $25.7 million in the United States.

  • At 2 p.m. April 22, the State Museum of Pennsylvania, 300 North St., Harrisburg, will sponsor “The Titanic and its Pennsylvania Passengers,” a symposium that will present the stories of commonwealths residents who were aboard the ship. Moderating will be Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commissioner William V. Lewis.

Speakers will include Pennsylvania residents Mae Thomas, who had three relatives aboard Titanic, and Dolores Borek Elias, who had family links to four passengers.

“These family members bear unique witness to Titanic’s heartwrenching voyage,” State Museum Director David Dunn said.

The event is free with regular museum admission.


England’s White Star Line needed two years, 6,000 workers and 3 million rivets to build the 882-foot Titanic, which was the world’s largest ship at the time of its launching. The four-funnel ship contained electric elevators, a swimming pool, a squash court, a Turkish bath and a gymnasium with a mechanical horse and mechanical camel. The cables, which raised and lowered two massive anchors, weighed 96 tons.

Here are some more facts and numbers:

  • Ship size: 882 feet, 8 inches long; 92 feet, 6 inches wide; gross tonnage was 46,328 tons; 175 feet high from keel to funnel top.
  • Builder: Harland Wolff of Belfast, Ireland.
  • Cost: $7.5 million (about $400 million today). Engines: Two four-cylinder steam engines, each generating 30,000 horsepower; one low-pressure turbine generating 16,000 horsepower.
  • Top speed: 24 knots (27.6 mph)
  • Provisions: Among the food stuffs Titanic carried were 75,000 pounds of fresh meat, 11,000 pounds of fresh fish, 40 tons of potatoes, 1,000 bottles of wine, 2,200 pounds of coffee, 40,000 eggs, 250 barrels of flour, 36,000 oranges, 1,500 gallons of milk.
  • Ticket cost: A first-class stateroom ticket cost $4,246. A third-class ticket cost $36.25.
  • Survivor rates (estimated): Women and children in first class, 94 percent; second class, 81 percent; third class, 47 percent.
  • Men in first class, 31 percent; second class, 10 percent; third class, 14 percent.
  • Both sexes in first class, 60 percent; second class, 44 percent, third class, 25 percent.
  • Where the wreckage is: 12,500 feet down, about 350 miles southeast of Newfoundland.
  • Titanic’s sisters: White Star Lines built two other large liners, the Olympic and the Britannic, intended to sail between England and the United States. The three ships were nearly identical. After the Titanic disaster, additional safety features such as more lifeboats and a double-skinned hull were added to the other ships. Olympic sailed until 1935 and became known as Old Reliable. Britannic was turned into a hospital ship during World War I, and sank in 1916 after striking a mine in the Aegean Sea.


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