Tag Archives: maritime history

Forgotten History: U.S. Starts Building Panama Canal (4 May 1905)

View from a unidentified sailing ship during a storm at Cape Horn
Circa 1854-1954 (no exact date exists)
Source: National Library of Australia
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

For hundreds of years sailors who made the long trek from Europe to the Pacific Ocean had a dream. A dream of one day being able to sail straight across rather than all the way down to the tip of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Cape Horn, so named by a Dutch captain in 1615, was a major point shipping point where trade ships plied between Europe and Asia. If you wanted to get to China, Japan, or shipping ports on the Pacific western coast (South America up to Alaska), this was the preferred route for many merchant and military vessels. However, the convergence of both oceans at that area also led to it being a treacherous path at times due to fierce storms that really put the skills of a mariner to a test. Many a ship has sunk in those waters and many explorers saw their fleets thinned out in that area.

The building of the transatlantic railway helped reduce the need to ship freight and passengers somewhat but not enough. A land route through the Isthmus of Panama was possible though it had its own perils as well. You had to walk from the one coast to the other through a jungle. The Spanish established Panama on the Pacific and the Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic connected by 49 mile (80 km) simple jungle path. The path was simple and not built for moving cargo but moving people (mostly soldiers) from one coast to the other. People who choose this route over taking a ship faced a hot climate, insects that carried malaria, and other surprises that were not for the faint of heart. A railroad was constructed (at heavy cost) to move people and freight but that still left ships making the dangerous route. Hence the dream of a canal was born. Building it was another matter.

The French Try and Fail

Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) photographed by Nadar
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

After building the Suez Canal in 1869, the French government thought it could do the same in connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Sitting in their comfortable rooms back in France, they perceived no difficulty. Hence the first problem-not fully sending an expedition to completely survey and determine exactly how such a canal would need to be built. In 1876, La Société internationale du Canal interocéanique was created to create the Panama Canal. It obtained an exclusive concession from the Colombian government to build the canal in Panama. The concession was to last for 15 years and then the canal would revert to Columbia. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had headed up the Suez Canal project, was put in charge. Having his name attached made it easier to attract investors to the company.  Lesseps though, was not an engineer and did not fully comprehend how much different it would be to build this canal. A canal through the desert was easy to what they found in Panama.

In order to make a canal feasible, you had to have a way to accommodate the fact that its lowest level, it would still be 360 feat above sea level at the lowest crossing point. Lesseps initially proposed a sea level canal but it would require enormous excavation of rock. And the rock was not very stable either. And then there was the problem of the rivers that would cross the canal creating in certain times of the year creating currents that would danger shipping. So the Chagres would have to be diverted to avoid this problem, which added more complexity to an already complex building project. Then there was the problem of tropical diseases of which both malaria and yellow fever were the worst. It was not understood how they were transmitted, but mosquitoes were prevalent and not understand as the transmitter of such diseases.

An international body headed up by Lesseps started in 1879 in Paris. The Congress for Study of an Interoceanic Canal brought together 136 delegates from 26 countries but only 42 were engineers. Others were a variety of people interested in the project and so it was mostly a fundraising event and to make legitimate the Lessep idea was (drawn from plans made by Lucien Bonaparte-Wyse and Armand Réclus) of a sea level canal that would be as easy to complete as the Suez Canal. Ultimately only 19 engineers would approve the plan but except for one, had never been to Central America. It was originally projected to cost $214 million, then revised down to $168 million. For reasons never explained, Lesseps reduced the estimate twice down to $120 million and that it would take six years to build.

 Oops, we need to start over!

 Construction began on 1 January 1881 with digging at Culebra on 22 January. A huge labor force was needed and a lot of them came from African-Caribbean workers from the West Indies. There was no shortage of experienced engineers needed but, as in the case of the workers, disease made it hard to retain them. And once word got out that the fever canal was not a good place to work in, it became harder to find engineers willing to put their health at risk. The death toll from 1881-1889 is estimated to be over 22.000 but is likely higher.

Then in 1885 another shock hit. The sea level canal was not possible to build owing to the fact that there was no way to remedy the elevation difference between where the lowest point is still 360 feet above sea level. It became obvious that only a lock canal plan would work. Lesseps was not convinced but ultimately engineering studies proved it was the only practical way to achieve this. It was finally adopted in 1887 but the scandal caused by the engineering problems, financial problems, the mortality rates rising, and worse frequent floods and mudslides indicated this project was in peril. While work on the new plan continued, it would end on 15 May 1889 when the company went bankrupt. The canal was about two-fifths done and over $234 million had been spent.

And it got worse back in France where investigations into how this ended so badly. An official commission was ordered by the French parliament. Worse were some were blaming Jews who speculated on the project. Despite all of this, the French government decided to keep it going, if nothing else to recoup expenses and show the world it could complete the canal. A new company was formed to finish the canal (Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama). A new concession was obtained from Colombia and work started up again this time with the plan of a two level, lock based canal. However, they ran into a wholly different problem than before as the United States was getting involved and was going to build a canal through Nicaragua instead. This made the French canal through Panama useless, and the company started looking for a buyer with deep pockets. And they found one. The United States bought it up and a whole new ballgame had begun.

The U.S. Builds the Canal

The French had negotiated a concession with the Columbian government, but the U.S. found it difficult. The U.S. bought the French company and land. A treaty was signed in 1903 (Hay-Herran Treaty) that gave the U.S. the rights to build in Panama. Unfortunately, the Colombia senate did not ratify the treaty. This left the U.S. with a company and land in Panama but no rights to build the canal. Now the area in Panama was inhabited by native people who had tried in the past to gain independence from Columbia but not able to pull it off. An early attempt to recognize Panama independence in 1903 was rejected by Columbia. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt made it known that if the natives did seek independence, the U.S. would support it.

Photograph of the USS Nashville (PG-7) at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, 8 January 1898
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On 3 November 1903, a revolt took place with the natives proclaiming their independence from Colombia. The USS Nashville had been stationed there to prevent any Colombian interference. The result was the new Panama government gave the U.S. complete control of the Panama Canal Zone and through a signed treaty gave the new country 10 million, the right of the US to administer and defend the canal and split the fees for canal use.

It was on 4 May 1905, formally called Acquisition Day, the project became official, and construction would commence. It was completed in 1914. The 52-mile canal now connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans without having to sail down to Cape Horn and into the Pacific. Commercial traffic would increase as more cargo and passenger ships could easily move between the two oceans. The 10-mile Panama Canal Zone would grow and become more important as a result. Today only the supersized ships must make the trip down to Cape Horn as they are too big for the Panama Canal.

Panama Canal (1923)
Original Source: Historical Atlas” by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Today the Panama Canal is recognized as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many Panamanians wanted to revisit the original treaty and gain more control of the canal. In a 1977 treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and Panama leader Omar Torrijos, it was agreed that the Panama Canal Authority would be turned over to Panama in 1999.

Buy David McCullough’s excellent Path Between The Seas:The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

Sources:

Panama Canal: History, Definition & Canal Zone – HISTORY. “Panama Canal: History, Definition and Canal Zone – HISTORY.” HISTORY, 6 Sept. 2022, www.history.com/topics/landmarks/panama-canal.

Worthington, William E., et al. “Panama Canal | Definition, History, Treaty, Map, Locks, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 3 May 2024, www.britannica.com/topic/Panama-Canal.

“Isthmus of Panama – on Historic Routes.” On Historic Routes, 27 Mar. 2021, on-historic-routes.com/featured-routes/isthmus-of-panama.

—. “Cape Horn.” Wikipedia, 3 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_Horn#.

13 April 1912-Life Aboard Titanic

The Grand Staircase of the RMS Olympic
Photo:Public Domain (Wikipedia)

Titanic is en route to New York and people settle into their familiar patterns. Mealtimes are very popular to meet with your fellow travelers and all classes have a place to gather and eat. The ticket price covers all three meals though first class has its own a la carte restaurant where you can buy dishes sold separately. Food portions were plentiful, unlike earlier passenger liners, so you got a lot of food for the ticket. In many ways, Titanic and other ships that followed this pattern became adept in creating expert meals at any time of the day with a dedicated crew of food professionals with access to quality foods stored aboard the ship.

The first class gymnasium on Titanic.
Photo: Robert Welch (1859–1936)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Working off all that food was not difficult either. You could take laps walking around the deck or use one of the many exercising equipment aboard. The gymnasium was quite impressive with punching bags, stationary bikes (called cycle racing machines), electric horse and camel, and a squash court (men and women played at different times). The mechanical rowing machine was apparently very popular. Of course, you could work up a sweat in the Turkish bath or treat yourself to a nice massage. There was an electric bath which today would be like a tanning bed. It was more of a curiosity than anything else. One had to exhibit a certain amount of bravery to get into something that looked like an iron lung.

RMS Olympic First Class Lounge (1912)
Photo: Robert John Welch (1859-1936), official photographer for Harland & Wolff
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

You might decide to relax in the library or send a telegram off to family using the Marconi wireless. April 13 was actually a nice day to be outside on the Titanic. Spring-like temperatures were in the upper 50’s, so one could enjoy walking the deck. Or you could be indoors in one of the smoke rooms playing cards. And there were professional gamblers aboard who made a living plying the ocean liners. They were known to White Star and other liners of the day, but the liners simply warned passengers that they were not responsible for such private games.

These gamblers were keen on trying to get as much money from those who could afford to lose. And they readily took advantage of the naïve and inexperienced. They did face steely competition though from men who, like the professional gambler, spent time in their gentleman’s clubs (not to be confused with its modern day nearly porn image with strippers) playing cards with other members. They usually were just as skilled as the professional gambler and knew what to watch out for.

Dinners were when everyone in first and second class had to appear in the right way. Men and women wore formal evening clothes. It was important to be seen properly attired for the meal especially the higher in status you were. To be seen in anything but such attire was unthinkable. A gentleman or lady who showed up in casual clothes for first- or second-class meals would not only get impolite stares but a discreet word that they must dress up to be seated. Breakfast was the only time you could be casual but even then, you did not show up looking sloppy or in gym clothes..

The main dining saloon was open to First- and Second-class passengers (Third Class ate in a separate area) and was open set hours for each meal. However, First Class passengers had exclusive access to the Al la Carte Restaurant, which served food from 8 am – 11 pm. Passengers who selected to eat only at this restaurant at the time of booking received a rebate of 3-5£ since they were paying for their own meals at this restaurant.

Promotional illustration in color by White Star Line to show how luxurious the facilities were for First Class Passengers. This was used in a postcard to depict the Al la Carte Restaurant on Titanic. Circa 1911
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The restaurant was not run by White Star, but a concession run by Luigi Gatti and staffed by its own workers. Modeled on the famous Ritz restaurant, it served French haute cuisine. This was certainly one of the most luxurious rooms on the ship decorated in the Louis XVI style, carved wooden paneling, fluted columns carved with gilded ribbons, and plaster ceilings decorated with flower and ribbon motifs. Mirrors were used to imitate windows and installed in the paneling. A large buffet with a peach-colored marble top graced the forward wall with a raised bandstand for the orchestra. It also had its own custom China service in gilt and cobalt blue, a beautiful carpet covered the floors, and the plush chairs were upholstered in a pink-rose tapestry. Even the lamps were made to look like crystal stems with colored light shades for each table. Seating was made to be intimate as half the tables were for two people (the main dining saloon only had a few of these tables). Calling it the Ritz was something passengers frequently commented on noting its food was superb, its décor exceptional, and the music pleasant to dine to.

The only picture of the Marconi radio room onboard the Titanic. Harold Bride is seated at his station. Photo was taken by Father Francis Browne, SJ, while aboard Titanic.
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

As Titanic traveled on, by 13 April it had gone about 519 miles. During this time, she received many warnings of ice. At 10:30 PM, she got a warning of heavy pack ice from the Rappahannock. The weather was starting to change. The nice spring weather was going to be replaced by a cold front that by noon the next day would have people wearing heavy clothing and scarves if they wanted to walk outside.

Sources

Books

Behe, George TITANIC: SAFETY, SPEED AND SACRIFICE, Transportation Trails, Polo, IL 1997

Eaton John P. & Haas Charles, TITANIC TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY, SECOND EDITION, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 1995 First American Edition

Lord, Walter, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, New York, 1955. Multiple revisions and reprints, notably Illustrated editions (1976,1977,1978 etc)

Lord, Walter, THE NIGHT LIVES ON, Willian Morrow and Company, New York, New York, 1986 (First Edition)

Lynch, Don & Marshall Ken, TITANIC AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY, Madison Press Books, Toronto, Ontario Canada, 1992

Internet

 Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/search?query=Titanic.

“Encyclopedia Titanica.” www.encyclopedia-titanica.org.

“The Titanic: Sinking and Facts | HISTORY.” HISTORY, 12 Mar. 2024, www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/titanic.

Titanic Arrives Queenstown (Cobh) 11 April 1912

RMS Titanic pictured in Queenstown, Ireland 11 April 1912
Source:Cobh Heritage Centre, Cobh Ireland/Wikimedia Commons

RMS Titanic arrived at 11:30 am at Cork Harbour, which is on the south coast of Ireland. Cork Harbour is a natural harbour and a river estuary at the mouth of the River Lee in County Cork. It is considered one of the larger natural harbours in the world and has been used as a working port for centuries. Near the entrance is Roches Point, where its lighthouse has been guiding ships since 1817 (the original was replaced in 1835 and fully automated in 1995). Queenstown, like Cherbourg, did not have the dock facilities to handle a ship of Titanic’s size.

It was a relatively warm day with a brisk wind (and some clouds in the sky) as Titanic made its last European stop. The tenders America and Ireland were used to bring the 123 passengers aboard: 3 First Class passengers, 7 Second Class passengers, and 113 Third Class. There were seven people who disembarked at Queenstown who had booked passage from Southampton to Queenstown. Among those who disembarked was Francis Brown (later Father Francis Brown, S.J.) who was an avid photographer. His pictures taken aboard Titanic would be the last known photographs taken aboard ship. Kate Odell, another cross-channel passenger who got off in Queenstown, also took some photos as well.

Titanic would weigh anchor at 1:30 pm and begin her journey to New York. A picture of her leaving Queenstown would be the very last ever taken while she was afloat. She would not be photographed again until September 1985 when her wreck was discovered on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Titanic was scheduled to arrive in New York on April 17.

Titanic Leaving Queenstown 11 April 1912. Believed to be the last photograph of ship before it sank.
Public Domain

[To be continued with next posting]

Sources

Books

Behe, George TITANIC: SAFETY, SPEED AND SACRIFICE, Transportation Trails, Polo, IL 1997

Eaton John P. & Haas Charles, TITANIC TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY, SECOND EDITION, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 1995 First American Edition

Lord, Walter, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, New York, 1955. Multiple revisions and reprints, notably Illustrated editions (1976,1977,1978 etc)

Lord, Walter, THE NIGHT LIVES ON, Willian Morrow and Company, New York, New York, 1986 (First Edition)

Lynch, Don & Marshall Ken, TITANIC AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY, Madison Press Books, Toronto, Ontario Canada, 1992

Internet

 Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/search?query=Titanic.

“Encyclopedia Titanica.” www.encyclopedia-titanica.org.

“The Titanic: Sinking and Facts | HISTORY.” HISTORY, 12 Mar. 2024, www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/titanic.

Titanic Departs Southampton on Maiden Voyage (10 April 1912)

Titanic at the docks of Southampton, 10 April 1912
Unknown Author
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Titanic captain Edward J. Smith boards the ship at 7:30 am. Since it docked in Southampton on 3 April, the ship has taken on crew and supplies for the voyage. At 9:30 am, passengers would begin to arrive as the London and South Western Railway train from London would arrive. The railway station was on the quayside alongside where Titanic was berthed. There was a large number of Third-Class passengers (called Steerage back then) so they had to board first. First and Second-Class passengers would have stewards escort them to their cabins. First Class passengers were greeted by Captain Smith. Third Class passengers had to undergo inspection for ailments and other conditions that might deny them entry to the United States. If refused to enter the United States, White Star Line had to carry them back. 920 passengers boarded at Southampton: 179 First Class, 247 Second Class, and 494 Third Class. Additional passengers were to be picked up in Cherbourg and Queenstown.

Titanic reversed her course, drifts back toward the mouth of White Star Dock, as New York is manouevered to a temporary mooring in the River Itchen (Daily Mirror)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

At 12 noon the ship’s horn blew and Titanic began its departure. Due her large size, Titanic generated a huge displacement causing smaller ships docked nearby to be momentarily lifted by the bulge of water. The liner New York’s mooring cables were unable to handle the strain and snapped, swinging the ship stern-first towards Titanic. A nearby tugboat came to assist and took New York under tow. On Titanic, Captain Smith ordered the engines be put full astern to give her enough speed to avoid colliding with New York.  Collision was avoided but it was close at 4 feet. Due to this incident, Titanic was delayed leaving Southampton for an hour while the drifting New York was brought under control making it safe for all ships to arrive and depart.

After navigating out of Southampton, and dropping off the Southampton pilot, Titanic headed out into the English Channel and her next destination of Cherbourg, France. The journey would take 77 nautical miles (89 miles). Weather to Cherbourg would be windy, cold, and overcast. Arriving at 6:30 pm the same day, Titanic would take on passengers by tender as Cherbourg lacked docking facilities for it. The two tenders, SS Traffic and SS Nomadic, were designed for ships like Titanic. 274 additional passengers would board in Cherbourg: 142 First Class, 30 Second Class, and 102 Third Class. 24 passengers departed at Cherbourg having only booked passage to France. The transfer of all passengers and their luggage was done by 8 pm. Titanic would depart for its final stop in Queenstown, Ireland before heading off to New York. The weather to Queenstown would remain cold and windy.

[To be continued on April 11]

Sources

Books

Behe, George TITANIC: SAFETY, SPEED AND SACRIFICE, Transportation Trails, Polo, IL 1997

Eaton John P. & Haas Charles, TITANIC TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY, SECOND EDITION, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 1995 First American Edition

Lord, Walter, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, New York, 1955. Multiple revisions and reprints, notably Illustrated editions (1976,1977,1978 etc)

Lord, Walter, THE NIGHT LIVES ON, Willian Morrow and Company, New York, New York, 1986 (First Edition)

Lynch, Don & Marshall Ken, TITANIC AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY, Madison Press Books, Toronto, Ontario Canada, 1992

Internet

 Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/search?query=Titanic.

“Encyclopedia Titanica.” www.encyclopedia-titanica.org.

“The Titanic: Sinking and Facts | HISTORY.” HISTORY, 12 Mar. 2024, www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/titanic.

Suez Canal Built (17 Nov 1869)

Suez Canal, between Kantara and El-Fedane. The first vessels through the Canal.
Image Source: Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, 1869
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the Suez Canal officially opened to ships on 17 November 1869, it changed forever how important cargo and passengers would reach Asia. Up until it opened, ships went down the African coast to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa (where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet), to enter Asia. It was certainly a shorter trek than going overland (which used to be the case until the Ottoman Empire closed them off forcing Europeans to find alternative routes to get spices from Asia) but still took a while especially when you had to rely on wind and current to get you there. The Suez Canal cut the travel time substantially and only ships that could not fit into the canal would have to take the longer route.

The genesis of the Suez Canal began in 1854 when Ferdinand de Lesseps (former French consul to Cairo), negotiated a treaty with the Ottoman governor of Egypt to build a canal 1oo miles across the Suez isthmus. Plans were drawn up by an international team of engineers and c0nstruction began in 1859. The Suez Canal Company (formed 1856) was given the right to operate the canal for 99 years. Initial work was done by hand, making it slow until dredgers and steam shovels arrived from Europe. Both labor disputes and a cholera epidemic slowed construction causing a four-year delay in getting it completed. When it opened in 1869, it was only 25 feet deep, 75 feet wide at the bottom, and 200-300 feet wide on the surface. This resulted in less than 500 ships using it the first year. Major improvements would be made in 1876 that allowed for nearly all the ships of the day (and today as well) to pass through it. The Suez Canal became one of the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes in the world.

Aftermath

The British decided to get control of the Suez Canal.  In 1875, Great Britain bought the stock of the new Ottoman governor making them the largest shareholder in the Suez Canal Company. When they invaded and took control of Egypt in 1882, they took control of the Suez Canal as well. Later under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the Egyptian government (now nearly independent of England), Britain retained rights to protect the canal. In July 1956 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal. This resulted in the Suez Crisis of 1956 in which Israel invaded Egypt and British and French troops arrived to occupy the Canal Zone. In 1957, both Britain and France withdrew under international pressure and in March 1957, the canal was once again open to commercial traffic. It would shut again in 1967 during the Six Day War. Tensions between Egypt and Israel would make the Suez Canal a front line between both parties. In 1975 Anwar Sadat would reopen the canal as a gesture of peace and negotiate a peace treaty with Israel. Today the canal plays a vital role in shipping cargo from Asia to Europe and North America. Its strategic importance is recognized by all powers in the region occasionally causing scuffles or even attacks by belligerents wanting to disrupt oil and cargo shipments.

Sources:

Smith, Charles Gordon, and William B. Fisher. “Suez Canal | History, Map, Importance, Length, Depth, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 6 Nov. 2023, www.britannica.com/topic/Suez-Canal.

“Suez Canal Opens.” HISTORY, 9 Feb. 2010, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/suez-canal-opens.

Remembering the Tragic Sinking of the General Slocum (15 June 1904)

On 15 June 1904 the General Slocum was taking members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Church to its annual picnic. Sadly, most would perish when the ship caught fire making it the worst maritime disaster in New York City and for a time the United States until Titanic sank in 1912.

General Slocum, date and author unknown.
Image:Public Domain (National Archives)

The PS General Slocum was built in Brooklyn, New York in 1891. She was designed as a sidewheel passenger steamboat to ferry passengers to locations on the East River. Named for the famous Civil War general (and New York Congressman), Henry Warner Slocum, the ship conveyed the image of reliability. With three decks-main, promenade and hurricane-and with the capacity to hold up to 2,500 passengers, the ship was very popular especially with groups that were holding major events and needed a ship to convey them.

The Slocum was owned by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company and had been captained for many years by William H. Van Schaick with a total crew of 22 aboard. It had several mishaps before the 1904 disaster. After launching in 1891, she ran aground in Rockaway and tugboats had to pull her free. 1894 saw a number of accidents from running into a sandbar, running aground, and colliding with a tugboat that had caused serious damage. In 1902, the ship ran aground and was stuck there overnight forcing the passengers to camp out on the ship for the night.

By 1904, the Slocum had been superseded by other more modern ships but was still popular for excursion travel around New York City. St. Mark’s Evangelical Church in Little Germany district (Kleindeutschland) of New York had used the Slocum for its annual picnic for the past 17 years. The annual picnic was to celebrate the end of the Sunday School year. Teachers, mothers, and children attended this event. Since it was held during the weekday, most fathers were at work. Pastor George Haas had chartered the ship for $350. On 15 June 1904, the group of 1,358 of mostly women and children boarded the ship at the Third Street Pier. The Slocum would take them up the East River and then through Long Island Sound to its destination of Locust Grove, in Eatons Neck, Long Island where the picnic would be held.

The ship departed at 9:30 am and everything seemed to be going well. Nearly all the passengers, mostly women and children, were dressed up for the event. There was a band playing music and food for the trip was served by those attending the picnic. By 10 am the Slocum had made her way up to the passage of Hell Gate, between Ward’s Island and Queens. It was around this time a fire broke out in the Lamp Room. The Lamp Room (the third compartment from the bow under the main deck) as the name indicates, was used to store lamps and its oil. Rags with oil on them were around and packing straw was also in the room as well from the boxes of glasses the group had brought with them for the trip. No one can say for certain how the fire was started, but most likely caused by a discarded cigarette or match. The fire was soon noticed by crew who attempted to put it out using the emergency water hoses. Unfortunately, they were old and leaked so little water could be applied. It would be learned later that the company that sold them to Knickerbocker had used materials that were quite thin and cheap.

The captain was first notified by a child but dismissed it. He was officially told 10 minutes later but by now the fire was ablaze and passengers were now getting frightened. The ship was equipped with lifeboats, but they could not be released. They were held in place by wire and in many cases were covered with paint making it impossible to release them. People were getting frantic now. Life preservers were available but were so old that the cork inside had disintegrated into dust. And the dust absorbed water. In some of them were bits of metal put in by the manufacturer to make them weigh the same as ones with cork. Mothers watched in agony as the children they had put life preservers on sink and drown in the water. Also, few knew how to swim at the time as well so could not swim to safety. Adding more to this situation were that at the time people wore wool clothing even in summertime. So even if they could swim, it was very difficult with the heaviness of the wool weighing you down.

Captain Van Schaick initially ordered the ship full ahead as the nearest area of land had oil storage. He would change his mind a few minutes later and order the ship beached on North Brother Island. He would remain on the Hurricane deck until the last moments of the ship forced him to jump overboard into shallow water. The ship had been completely engulfed by the time she was beached-a mere 20 minutes after the fire had been discovered, Fortunately North Brother Island was a quarantine island and there were both doctors and nurses to assist those that had gotten ashore. Several vessels nearby had come to assist those they found in the water and responsible for saving 300 lives.

Most however did not make it off the Slocum. An estimated 1021 would die according to a government report and of that only 2 were crew (though some sources put the figure lower). Sadly, many who died were children though sometimes parents or members of the extended family also perished. Some victims were never identified because there was no one living to do so. The funeral procession of the dead was witnessed by many, and the small coffins caused many to cry. One notable incident was a man accompanied by his wife carrying a small coffin under his arms. He could not afford a funeral wagon and so was walking to the cemetery. Fortunately, a man delivering flowers offered him a ride. Captain Van Schaick was injured in an eye and lost its use as result of the tragedy.

Victims of the General Slocum washed ashore at North Brother Island
15 June 1904
Possible source: Gustav Scholer (1851 – 1928)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The city was aghast at what had happened. In supposedly one of the great cities of the world, a ship burned within its sight. A floating horror of fire and people frantically trying to escape facing either the flames or drowning. Newspapers carried headlines of the many funeral processions that occurred. Everyone wanted answers and President Roosevelt ordered a commission to investigate what had happened on the Slocum. And what the commission found was startling. Nothing had been done to maintain and replace as needed the safety equipment. The report found the fire hoses were made of cheap linen and full of kinks (and of course leaked). And of course, how the life preservers had failed as well along with the lifeboats that could not be accessed. Also, they found no safety drill had been done in over a year. Captain Van Schaick was found responsible as master of the Slocum and sentenced to 10 years in jail for failing to maintain the safety equipment. Since the captain bore the brunt of the blame, the Knickerbocker Steamship Company paid only a small fine though it was learned they had falsified safety records.
Later Van Schaick would be paroled and pardoned by President Taft in 1912 since many believed the company was at fault.

Aftermath

As a result of the tragedy, a reorganization of who was responsible for inspecting ships and tighter safety regulations would result. Today that is handled by the U.S. Coast Guard. The community of Little Germany in Manhattan was severely affected with the loss of so many in the tragedy. It brought the community together and St. Mark’s would continue to serve its community. Little Germany had grown and flourished from the 1840’s but by the end of the 19th century had already started to contract. The once solidly German area began to diminish and in many ways the tragedy of the General Slocum hastened it. Many began to resettle in Brooklyn. A new wave of immigrants was coming in from Italy and Eastern Europe. It would become eventually the Lower East Side forever changing the character with areas where Italian, Russian, and Yiddish would now be heard.

St. Mark’s Evangelical Church would never recover from the 1904 loss as most of its congregation were dead. While the parish would continue elsewhere, the church would become a synagogue (and still is to this day) in 1940. The building itself is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. In 1946 the parish of St. Mark’s merged with the Zion Church in Yorkville in 1946 to become Zion St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.

General Slocum Memorial Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City
Image:Public Domain (Wikipedia)

In 1906 a marble memorial fountain, which stands to this day, was erected in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies. There is also another memorial in the Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens where many graves of the victims are to be found. The last survivor died in 2004.

The General Slocum was salvaged and turned into a barge renamed Maryland. Continuing its history of mishaps as before, it sank in the South River in 1909 and in 1911 while in the Atlantic off the coast of New Jersey. No one died in the 1911 sinking.

The movie Manhattan Melodrama (1934), which stars a young Clark Gable, has as its opening moments the events of the General Slocum which sets in motion the lives of the two characters the movie depicts. Not a bad movie for its time and worth looking at if you have the opportunity.

A memorial plaque placed near the former church of St. Mark’s on the centennial of disaster states:

This is the site of the former St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (1857–1940) a mostly German immigrant parish. On Wednesday, June 15, 1904, the church chartered the excursion steamer, GENERAL SLOCUM, to take the members on the 17th annual Sunday school picnic. The steamer sailed up the East River, with some 1400 passengers aboard, when it entered the infamous Hell Gate passage, caught fire and was beached and sank on North Brother Island. It is estimated 1200 people lost their lives, mostly woman and children, dying within yards of the Bronx shore.

The GENERAL SLOCUM had been certified by the U.S. Steam boat Inspection Service to safely carry 2500 passengers five weeks before the disaster. An investigation after the fire and sinking found the lifeboats were wired and glued with paint to the deck, life jackets fell apart with age, fire hoses burst under water pressure, and the crew never had a fire drill. Until the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the Slocum disaster had been the largest fire fatality in New York City’s history.

Dedicated Sunday, June 13, 2004, by the Steam Centennial Committee.
The Maritime Industry Museum
SUNY-Maritime College, Fort Schulyer, The Bronx, NY

Sources

“Fire on Riverboat Leaves More Than 1,000 Dead.” HISTORY, 13 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/river-excursion-ends-in-tragedy.

Hank Linhart. “Fearful Visitation, the Steamship Fire of the General Slocum,1904.” YouTube, 13 June 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZU1QzU8tCnk.

Fascinating Horror. “The General Slocum | a Short Documentary | Fascinating Horror.” YouTube, 8 Aug. 2023, www.youtube.com/watch?v=38NfsPVC6m8.

Wikipedia contributors. “PS General Slocum.” Wikipedia, Aug. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PS_General_Slocum.

Wikipedia contributors. “Little Germany, Manhattan.” Wikipedia, Aug. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Germany,_Manhattan.

Zion-St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. www.zionstmarks.org/ourhistory.htm.

Forgotten History: U.S. Starts Building Panama Canal (4 May 1905)

View from a unidentified sailing ship during a storm at Cape Horn
Circa 1854-1954 (no exact date exists)
Source: National Library of Australia
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

For hundreds of years sailors who made the long trek from Europe to the Pacific Ocean had a dream. A dream of one day being able to sail straight across rather than all the way down to the tip of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Cape Horn, so named by a Dutch captain in 1615, was a major point shipping point where trade ships plied between Europe and Asia. If you wanted to get to China, Japan, or shipping ports on the Pacific western coast (South America up to Alaska), this was the preferred route for many merchant and military vessels. However, the convergence of both oceans at that area also led to it being a treacherous path at times due to fierce storms that really put the skills of a mariner to a test. Many a ship has sunk in those waters and many explorers saw their fleets thinned out in that area.

The building of the transatlantic railway helped reduce the need to ship freight and passengers somewhat but not enough. A land route through the Isthmus of Panama was possible though it had its own perils as well. You had to walk from the one coast to the other through a jungle. The Spanish established Panama on the Pacific and the Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic connected by 49 mile (80 km) simple jungle path. The path was simple and not built for moving cargo but moving people (mostly soldiers) from one coast to the other. People who choose this route over taking a ship faced a hot climate, insects that carried malaria, and other surprises that were not for the faint of heart. A railroad was constructed (at heavy cost) to move people and freight but that still left ships making the dangerous route. Hence the dream of a canal was born

Building it was another matter. The French gave it a try and it was a complete failure. The construction costs quickly mushroomed, and they lost 20,0000 workers due to malaria and accidents. The company collapsed and many speculated it could not be done. The US, for both maritime and military reasons, decided to buy up the French company and do it themselves. At the time, the proposed canal was in Columbia resulting having to negotiate terms for the digging of the canal. However, Columbia and the U.S. could not come to terms, leaving the U.S. with a problem. The area of Panama was inhabited by native people who had tried in the past to gain independence from Columbia but not able to pull it off. An early attempt to recognize Panama independence in 1903 was rejected by Columbia. So, with the full support of the US, Panama declared its independence in November 1903. The treaty signed between Panama and the US allowed for the construction of the canal but gave the US sovereign rights in the canal zone. This allowed the US to not only build the canal but administer and defend it as well. Fees for using the canal would go to the zone but also to Panama as well.

It was on 4 May 1905, formally called Acquisition Day, the project became official, and construction would commence. It was completed in 1914. The 52-mile canal now connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans without having to sail down to Cape Horn and into the Pacific. Commercial traffic would increase as more cargo and passenger ships could easily move between the two oceans. The 10-mile Panama Canal Zone would grow and become more important as a result. Today only the supersized ships must make the trip down to Cape Horn as they are too big for the Panama Canal.

Today the Panama Canal is recognized as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many Panamanians wanted to revisit the original treaty and gain more control of the canal. In a 1977 treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and Panama leader Omar Torrijos, it was agreed that the Panama Canal Authority would be turned over to Panama in 1999.

Sources:


Titanic Chronology: 13 April 1912-Life Aboard Titanic

RMS Olympic’s A la Carte Restaurant, located in B-Deck level. Circa May 1911
Robert John Welch (1859-1936), official photographer for Harland & Wolff
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Titanic is enroute to New York and people settle into their familiar patterns. Mealtimes are very popular to meet with your fellow travelers and all classes have a place to gather and eat. The ticket price covers all three meals though first class has its own a la carte restaurant where you can buy dishes sold separately. Food portions were plentiful, unlike earlier passenger liners, so you got a lot of food for the ticket. In many ways Titanic and other ships that followed this pattern became adept in creating expert meals at any time of the day with a dedicated crew of food professionals with access to quality foods stored aboard the ship. Working off all that food was not the difficult either. You could take laps walking around the deck or use one of the many exercise equipment aboard. The gymnasium was quite impressive with punching bags, stationary bikes (called cycle racing machines), electric horse and camel, and a squash court (men and women played at different times). The mechanical rowing machine was apparently very popular. Of course you could work up a sweat in the Turkish bath or treat yourself to a nice massage. There was an electric bath which today would be like a tanning bed. It was more of a curiosity than anything else. One had to exhibit a certain amount of bravery to get into something that looked like an iron lung.

RMS Olympic First Class Lounge (1912)
Photo: Robert John Welch (1859-1936), official photographer for Harland & Wolff
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

You might decide to relax in the library or send a telegram off to family using the Marconi wireless. April 13 was actually a nice day to be outside on the Titanic. Spring like temperatures were in the upper 50’s, so one could enjoy walking the deck. Or you could be indoors in one of the smoke rooms playing cards. And there were professional gamblers aboard who made a living plying the ocean liners. They were known to White Star and other liners of the day, but the liners simply warned passengers that they were not responsible for such private games. These gamblers were keen on trying to get as much money from those who could afford to lose. And they readily took advantage of the naïve and inexperienced. The did face steely competition though from men who, like the professional gambler, spent time in their gentleman’s clubs (not to be confused with its modern day nearly porn image with strippers) playing cards with other members. They usually were just as skilled as the professional gambler and knew what to watch out for.

Dinners were when everyone in first and second class had to appear in the right way. Men and women  wore formal evening clothes. It was important to be seen properly attired for the meal especially the higher in status you were. To be seen in anything but such attire was unthinkable. A gentleman or lady who showed up in casual clothes for first- or second-class meals would not only get impolite stares but a discreet word that they must dress up to be seated. Breakfast was the only time you could be casual but even then, you did not show up looking sloppy or in gym clothes.

The Grand Staircase of the RMS Olympic
Photo:Public Domain (Wikipedia)

As Titanic traveled on, by 13 April it had gone about 519 miles. During this time, she received many warnings of ice. At 10:30 PM, she got a warning of heavy pack ice from the Rappahannock.  The weather was starting to change. The nice spring weather was going to be replaced by a cold front that by noon the next day would have people wearing heavy clothing and scarves if they wanted to walk outside.

 

Books

Behe, George TITANIC: SAFETY, SPEED AND SACRIFICE, Transportation Trails, Polo, IL 1997

Eaton John P. & Haas Charles, TITANIC TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY, SECOND EDITION, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 1995 First American Edition

Lord, Walter, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, New York, 1955. Multiple revisions and reprints, notably Illustrated editions (1976,1977,1978 etc)

Lord, Walter, THE NIGHT LIVES ON, Willian Morrow and Company, New York, New York, 1986 (First Edition)

Lynch, Don & Marshall Ken, TITANIC AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY, Madison Press Books, Toronto, Ontario Canada, 1992

Internet

Britannica.com
Encyclopedia Titanica
History.com

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Horrific Shipwrecks, Titanic Replica, Violet Jessop and Titanic Memorial Lighthouse

Ten Horrific Shipwrecks That Weren’t the Titanic
Listverse, 6 Jan 2023

While less well known than the sinking of the Titanic, the ten nautical disasters on this list often eclipse the Titanic story in terms of sheer horror, scandal, and loss of life. With human nature itself proving either the salvation or doom of the castaways, here are tales of heroism, cannibalism, endurance, murder, and disappearance without a trace.

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This Titanic Replica In Tennessee Is So Realistic It Includes Original Artifacts From The Ship
Narcity.com, 6 Jan 2023

The Titanic Museum Attraction in Pigeon Forge, TN, is the world’s largest Titanic-dedicated museum, boasting a massive replica of the ship that even has the iceberg next to it. They say the exterior is “just the tip of the iceberg,” as the inside looks pretty close to the world-famous luxury ship, including the famous staircase where movie characters Jack and Rose met in the 1997 film.

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Collapsible lifeboat D photographed by passenger on Carpathia on the morning of 15 April 1912.
Public Domain(Wikipedia)

A woman cheated death multiple times by surviving the tragedy and sinking of the Titanic and its two sister ships
Newsbreak.com, 7 Jan 2023

Violet Constance Jessop (1887 – 1971) has been nicknamed “Miss Unsinkable” because she survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic and its sister ship, the HMHS Britannic. She also survived the collision of the RMS Olympic with the warship, the HMS Hawke.

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Titanic Memorial Lighthouse,South Street Seaport Museum, New York (2008)
Image: Andy C (Wikipedia)

New York’s Titanic Memorial Lighthouse to be refursbished
IrishCentral.com, 9 Jan 2023

Located in the Seaport District of Manhattan, the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse has fallen into disrepair and is in desperate need of refurbishment. Friends of the Titanic Lighthouse Restoration have campaigned for over four years for the old monument to be restored to its former glory and that tireless campaigning appears to have finally paid off.

 

Suez Canal Built (17 Nov 1869)

Suez Canal, between Kantara and El-Fedane. The first vessels through the Canal.
Image Source: Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, 1869
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the Suez Canal officially opened to ships on 17 November 1869, it changed forever how important cargo and passengers would reach Asia. Up until it opened, ships went down the African coast to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa (where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet), to enter Asia. It was certainly a shorter trek than going overland (which used to be the case until the Ottoman Empire closed them off forcing Europeans to find alternative routes to get spices from Asia) but still took a while especially when you had to rely on wind and current to get you there. The Suez Canal cut the travel time substantially and only ships that could not fit into the canal would have to take the longer route.

The genesis of the Suez Canal began in 1854 when Ferdinand de Lesseps (former French consul to Cairo), negotiated a treaty with the Ottoman governor of Egypt to build a canal 1oo miles across the Suez isthmus. Plans were drawn up by an international team of engineers and c0nstruction began in 1859. The Suez Canal Company (formed 1856) was given the right to operate the canal for 99 years. Initial work was done by hand, making it slow until dredgers and steam shovels arrived from Europe. Both labor disputes and a cholera epidemic slowed construction causing a four-year delay in getting it completed. When it opened in 1869, it was only 25 feet deep, 75 feet wide at the bottom, and 200-300 feet wide on the surface. This resulted in less than 500 ships using it the first year. Major improvements would be made in 1876 that allowed for nearly all the ships of the day (and today as well) to pass through it. The Suez Canal became one of the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes in the world.

Aftermath

The British decided to get control of the Suez Canal.  In 1875, Great Britain bought the stock of the new Ottoman governor making them the largest shareholder in the Suez Canal Company. When they invaded and took control of Egypt in 1882, they took control of the Suez Canal as well. Later under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the Egyptian government (now nearly independent of England), Britain retained rights to protect the canal. In July 1956 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal. This resulted in the Suez Crisis of 1956 in which Israel invaded Egypt and British and French troops arrived to occupy the Canal Zone. In 1957, both Britain and France withdrew under international pressure and in March 1957, the canal was once again open to commercial traffic. It would shut again in 1967 during the Six Day War. Tensions between Egypt and Israel would make the Suez Canal a front line between both parties. In 1975 Anwar Sadat would reopen the canal as a gesture of peace and negotiate a peace treaty with Israel. Today the canal plays a vital role in shipping cargo from Asia to Europe and North America. Its strategic importance is recognized by all powers in the region occasionally causing scuffles or even attacks by belligerents wanting to disrupt oil and cargo shipments.

Sources:

Smith, Charles Gordon, and William B. Fisher. “Suez Canal | History, Map, Importance, Length, Depth, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 6 Nov. 2023, www.britannica.com/topic/Suez-Canal.

“Suez Canal Opens.” HISTORY, 9 Feb. 2010, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/suez-canal-opens.