On 23 January 1909, RMS Republic collided early in the morning with the SS Florida in heavy fog off Nantucket, Massachusetts. Built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and launched in 1903, it was originally christened SS Columbusand sailed for the Dominion line. The Dominion line was a sister company of the White Star Line and owned by International Mercantile Marine. It had two voyages with the line and then, along with three other Dominion liners, were sold to White Star. It was renamed Republic (the second White Star ship to bear that name) to sail the Liverpool-Boston route. In November 1904 the ship became part of the Mediterranean-New York service.
This route was for wealthy American passengers who would travel in the ships spacious accommodations for first and second class passengers. This gave the ship the nickname “The Millionaires Ship.” The other reason was to take advantage of the westbound Italian immigrant trade to America. With space for 2,000 in third class, this would become a very lucrative route. Third class was often booked to capacity for the westbound voyage.
Collision with SS Florida
The Republic departed New York on 22 January 1909 for Naples. The next morning the ship encountered heavy fog and began sounding her horn at regular intervals to announce her presence in the outbound shipping lane. At around 5:47 a.m., another whistle was heard. Republic reversed her engines and the helm was turned hard to port. Then out of the fog the Lloyd Italian liner Florida came into view. The 5,018 ton liner on route to New York rammed the Republicamidships on her portside. Two passengers on the Republic were killed in their cabin when Florida sliced through the hull. Three crew aboard Florida were crushed when the bow was crushed back.
Both the engine and boiler rooms began to flood. Captain Sealby ordered an evacuation of the Republic and passengers were brought on deck. Thanks to the new Marconi wireless, a CQD message was sent (the first ship to use this signal). The Florida assisted as well as the Gresham, a U.S. revenue cutter. The White Star liner Baltic responded as well but did not arrive, due to the fog and the drifting Republic, until the evening. Both the Florida and Gresham had to split the passengers rescued but Florida was overcrowded. With the arrival of the Baltic, those rescued were all transferred to Baltic.
Captain Sealby and a skeleton crew stayed aboard Republic in the hopes of saving her. However this proved futile and the ship sank stern first on 24 January. At that time with her tonnage of 15,378 it was the largest ship to sink.
Republic was carrying money and valuables, including a reputed $3,000,000 in US gold Double Eagles. There was no formal inquiry by the British Board of Trade. According to rms-republic.com, it was brought up in the British House of Commons:
Mr. SUMMERBELL asked the reason why there has been no public inquiry into the wreck of the s.s. “Republic” early this year?
The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Tennant) The “Republic” sank after collision with the Italian steamer “Florida” in American waters on 23rd January last. Formal investigation was not ordered in this country, as the Board of Trade had no power to compel the attendance of witnesses from the Italian vessel, and any public inquiry that might have been held in their absence would necessarily have been of an ex parte character and possibly prejudicial to the interests of the English vessel. Actions were entered in the United States District Court, and are, I am informed, still pending. It was reported that the “Florida” had been arrested by a United States marshal and subsequently sold by auction. (House of Commons, 30 June 1909)
So, no formal investigation was held but perhaps an informal inquiry was made, but that is pure speculation and no proof that it happened. However White Star Line sued the owners of the Florida, the Lloyd Line, in U.S. federal court. They were found at fault and ordered to pay damages. The ship was apparently sold to pay the damages. Captain Sealby was considered a hero by many for his actions in saving the passengers of Republic. Afterwards he would go to law school and become an expert on maritime law. He would next command a ship in 1917. Due to his experience, he was called upon to give his perspective on the Titanic disaster that occurred three years later.
The sinking in some ways proved the logic of not having enough lifeboats for all. The assumption with so many ships in the North Atlantic shipping lanes, that you only needed lifeboats to ferry passengers to other ships. While the evacuation of Republic went smoothly by all accounts, the question of what would happen if ships could not respond fast enough or were near enough was not considered. It would take the tragic demise of Titanic in 1912 to correct this line of thinking. Then quite suddenly shipowners had no problem adding lifeboats for everyone aboard the ship.
Hat tip to Mark Baber whose White Star History emails alerted me to this incident.