Friday, September 14, 2012

Titanic becomes a Canadian Story

The sinking of RMS Titanic has its 100th anniversary this year and now the connection to Canada is made more clear in a book by Canadian author, Alan Hustak.  Called, Titanic The Canadian Story it was published by VĂ©hicule Press in 1998 and is a good read for all Titanic fans in Canada. The CBC now has a mini-series of the same name and I hope the series helps Hustak sell some more books. He has done some good research on various families, particularly the families of first class survivors and victims of the tragedy.  The CBC series follows his research pretty closely as far as I can tell. Anyone who happens to be passing by Halifax can see some pretty interesting stuff in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic there.  Besides a Titanic deck chair or two and other memorabilia, there are great displays about the Halifax Explosion, one of the last floating Canadian corvettes remaining from the Battle of the Atlantic, and some amazing hand-built wooden sailboats, dories and workboats.    

Interesting Titanic stuff I learned:  1) About one in ten passengers were either Canadian or headed to Canada to live or work.  2) Canadian ships from Halifax were hired to retrieve, embalm and return bodies for burial or to perform burial at sea for those who were badly decomposed. 3) The class system was in use even for the dead; when the body could be identified, the 1st class got nice coffins, 2nd class plain coffins and 3rd class got canvas bags. 4) Unclaimed bodies and bodies of those who could not afford to have their loved ones shipped elsewhere were buried in Halifax. 5) Titanic Second officer Charles Lightoller had been a cowboy in Alberta and rode the rails through Canada before returning to the sea.  He'd also been shipwrecked three times prior to the Titanic and survived the Titanic also. Later he would captain a vessel through bullets and shells to help evacuate British Expeditionary Forces from Dunkirk. He'd survive that too.

A fascinating angle in one book I read suggested that a smouldering fire in one of Titanic's coal bins, which was unable to be put out despite crews working around the clock, was the reason the Titanic put so much haste into its New York journey, resulting in the tragic collision. The author suggests Captain Smith and owner Bruce Ismay wanted the Titanic to arrive after midnight in new York, so the New York fire department could quietly douse the smouldering fire without anyone noticing & bringing shame to the White Star Lines... A bit of a stretch. Would the New York Fire Department have more water to pump onto this fire than the Titanic's pumps and tanks had access to? Would the NYFD people be trusted to not tell anyone that there had been a dangerous fire on the world's newest and 'virtually unsinkable' ship?  I would have a hard time with this one. None of the other well-researched books I read took this angle, though there apparently was a coal fire which took some days to put out. Another book used charts and diagrams and seagoing logic of an old Atlantic skipper to prove that Titanic hit low-lying sea ice in the darkness rather than an ice-berg.  This would explain why lookouts didn't see it in time.  So, we're to understand the Titanic hit a patch of low-lying sea ice in the middle of a field of icebergs which other ships had given warnings about... and the lifeboats were found near a field of icebergs the next morning. Anyway, this captain got his book published and probably earned a few dollars for it. Good on him!
A brief recount of the Titanic story, as it relates to Canadians, will be included into Canadian Disasters for 2013.

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