It was 97 years ago this month, on a Sunday, night April 14, 1912 and all was quiet on the wireless receiver at the remote Cape Bear Lighthouse and at the Cape Race Light Station in Newfoundland, Canada where the Associated Press had an office at the Marconi Wireless Station at the site.
Suddenly at 12:15AM on the morning of the 15th the silence was broken by the following message . . . CQD . . . CQD . . . CQD . . . CQD . . . CQD . . . MGY. Thirty minutes later the message was updated to the new emergency distress call letters of . . . SOS . . . SOS . . . SOS . . .followed by the letters MGY, which was the call signal of the supposed unsinkable Titanic, billed as the largest ship in the world.
The radio operators first thought was that it was a hoax, but with no one else on duty to confide in, they had to follow the rules and soon were sending out messages to every ship in the area that the Titanic was in trouble, in serious trouble. This was followed by a message by Associated Press to its New York headquarters.
However, for many of the people on board the unsinkable Titanic, it was too late. As everyone knows, the ship only carried enough lifeboats for half of its 2206 passengers, and it was sinking fast in the ice cold waters off the coast of Newfoundland. On board the Titanic were some of the richest and most influential people in the world, including 11 millionaires and, of course, American Financier John Jacob Astor, all of whom lost their lives. In total, over 1500 people perished and only 706 survived in what was called the worst maritime disaster in history.
Ironically, the very next day, Monday, April 15, (tax day) 1912 the cornerstone of the Seaman's Church Institute in New York City was being laid. Even before the building was finished, it was decided that a memorial lighthouse would be erected at the top of the building overlooking the harbor where the Titanic would have arrived on her maiden voyage.
It was exactly one year later that the nine ton, copper, Titanic Memorial Lighthouse was dedicated in ceremonies that were attended by thousands of people. The lighthouse had a steady green light, which was more ornamental than navigational; however it could be seen for twelve miles. During the next 50 years, it was one of only two official Coast Guard Lights to operate on Manhattan Island.
Shortly after the lighthouse began operation, a time-ball was added, which became operational on November 1, 1913. The time-ball was a pre-radio aid for synchronizing ship chronometers when they were in port between voyages. The device consisted of a hollow, bronze-framed 200 pound ball 4 feet in diameter and covered with black painted canvas. The ball was mounted astride a 16 foot hollow rod protruding from the top of the lighthouse. Inside the rod were cables for hoisting the ball to the top of the lighthouse, and an electric magnet which held the ball in position.
At 11:59AM, a series of electric time signals started to come through telegraph lines from the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC and at exactly 12:00 noon (EST) the final signal cut the electrical current to the magnet holding the ball, which then plummeted down the shaft. A special cushioning arrangement protected the ball on impact.
The ball was in operation for every day except on weekends and holidays. Every weekday thousands of onlookers would stand and gaze up at the ball to watch the movement take place. On rare occasions when the ball would malfunction, many people would panic, because, in the days of wind up watches, this was the only way to correctly set their time pieces. For many years it continued to operate as the only surviving instrument of its kind in the United States.
For nearly 50 years on every April 15th, a memorial service was held to remember the 1,517 people who lost their lives in the Titanic disaster. However, time took its toll on the Seaman's Institute and the old building was to be demolished. On July 24, 1968, the Titanic Memorial lighthouse was lowered, intact, to the street below. The demolition company hired to tear the building down, Kaiser-Nelson Steel and Salvage Corp., had decided to save the lighthouse and donate it to the South Street Seaport Museum. The lighthouse lay on its side at the museum for years until funds could be raised to again erect it.
It is interesting how events like the Titanic disaster become fixtures in our society, while similar events are forgotten. Only two years after the Titanic tragedy, the steamship Empress of Ireland was struck by the Norwegian ship Storstad in the St. Lawrence River. Within fourteen minutes the Empress sank with 1027 of the 1466 passengers losing their lives. An interesting legend claims that one of the crew members on board the Empress of Ireland was Frank Tower, who had been one of the crew survivors from the Titanic and also a survivor from the sinking of the RMS Lusitania that was sunk by a German U-Boat in May of 1915. If it were true, he'd have to be one of the luckiest men ever born, however, his name is not found on the rolls of any of the ships.
The Titanic is certainly more famous in death that it was in real life. She had been built as the second in a trio of ships planned for the North Atlantic passenger trade. The first was the Olympic, completed in 1911. The Titanic was nearly an exact duplicate and built in an adjoining berth. At the time, the Olympic got most of the media attention and not the Titanic. During the Great War, the Olympic served as a troop carrier, ferrying over 100,000 soldiers and civilians without the loss of one life.
Interestingly, it was the Olympic, in 1934, that hit and destroyed the Lightship Nantucket #117 resulting in the deaths of seven crew members of the lightship.
The third ship of the trio was the Britannic. However, she was slightly larger and incorporated more safety features than the Titanic and Olympic. Completed just as the war broke out, the vessel was requisitioned by the government. While serving as a hospital ship in the Mediterranean, she was mined and sunk, and thus had the distinction of being the largest merchant ship lost in World War I.
Today, the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse stands again, now as a focal point to welcome visitors to the South Street Seaport Museum. However, many of the thousands of people that walk past the lighthouse every week don't even know the name of the lighthouse or why it was built.
Movies may have brought to life the events of the Titanic disaster, but none of them ever make mention at the end the movie the story of the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse. Long before movies were made about the tragic event, the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse stood as a memory to honor those who gave up their lives on that fateful day in April of 1912.
Editor's note: Special thanks to the New York Historical Society, Walter Cushman and the Seamen's Church Institute for their research material.
This story appeared in the
April 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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