DALE RODEBAUGH/Durango Herald
The exhibit here of ship artifacts and personal effects of passengers and crew from the ill-fated Titanic is more a retrospect on the human aspect of the April 15, 1912, nautical disaster than an observation of the upcoming centennial.
Visitors in a sense board the RMS Titanic upon arrival at the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park. Their tickets – White Star Line “boarding passes” that bear biographical data of a real passenger 100 years ago – personalize the voyage.
At the end of the self-guided tour is a chart bearing the names of the 2,228 passengers and crew members. Visitors can scan the list to learn if their real-life counterpart survived or perished.
The odds aren’t good – the tragedy claimed 1,523 lives, with only 705 survivors.
The Titanic, the most luxurious steamer of its time, departed Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage, headed for New York City, on April 10, 1912. Four days later, at 11:40 p.m., the ship struck an iceberg and sank two hours and 40 minutes later.
The ship split in two, coming to rest upright 2.5 miles (13,200 feet) beneath the surface. The debris field, 400 miles southeast of Newfoundland, covers an area 5 miles by 3 miles.
About 5,500 artifacts have been recovered, none from the ship itself.
Social rank, wealth or celebrity status didn’t guarantee surival. Silent film star Dorothy Gibson survived, but industrialists John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim didn’t.
Ida Straus, wife of Macy’s co-owner, Isidor Straus, declined a place in a lifeboat under the women-and-children-first ethic to remain with her husband. Both went down with the ship.
Frederick Goodwin, 42, his wife, Augusta, 43, and their six children, ages 16 to a babe in arms, booked third-class passage on the Titanic when their original steamer was delayed by a strike in the coal industry. They all perished.
Artifacts and accompanying text provide a close-up look at society at the time.
Third-class passage on the Titanic was $40, equivalent to about $900 today. First-class travelers paid $4,500, about $103,000 today.
First-class accommodations offered elegant quarters while third-class travelers made do with cramped rooms where the sound and vibrations of the engines never ceased.
As a historical aside, one learns that third class on the White Star Line was a cut above similar accommodations on other steamers because company officials recognized they would need less affluent passengers to fill ships in coming years.
Class consciousness extended to the quality of tableware, and the entrées on a reproduced but authentic menu show filet mignon for first class, roast pork for second class and baked haddock for third class.
Among the 200 artifacts here are a corked champagne bottle about one-third full; corroded metal kitchen pans; a woman’s hair pin; vials containing perfume; a plastic hand mirror; several types of paper money; a chandelier; a porcelain chamber pot; the flap of a suitcase, a Gillette razor blade wrapper; a salt cellar with a White Star Line logo on the side and liquor bottles.
“We try to have a representative selection of artifacts,” Theresa Nelson, a spokeswoman for RMS Titanic Inc., which owns the rights to the ship, said by telephone from Atlanta. “We try to be thoughtful and offer a complete story of the Titanic.”
There are two permanent and six traveling exhibits of Titanic memorabilia in the United States and abroad. The exhibit will be here until Sept. 9.
A photo of the wreckage site and a display of intact au gratin dishes drew gee-whiz admiration from one visitor. The wooden cabinet that held stored dishes settled on the bottom without mishap. The wood eventually rotted, leaving the dishes resting in the sand in perfect alignment.
Hardly anyone passed without touching a steel panel depicting an iceberg. The panel is adapted to function much like a freezer coil in early refrigerators that gathers a layer of ice on the surface. The temperature of the pretend iceberg is 28 degrees, the same as the North Atlantic water the night the Titanic went down.
Online research reveals that immersion in water colder than 32 degrees will render a person unconscious in less than 15 minutes, with maximum survival time estimated at 45 minutes.
The loss of life, compounded by the opinion that the Titanic, the largest vessel ever built to that date, was indestructible, stunned the world.
Witness the smug declaration of Titanic Capt. Edward J. Smith:
“I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
This reporter’s party of four represented:
Harvey Collyer, 31, an Englishman who severed ties with his homeland to relocate in Idaho and buy a fruit farm. He and his wife, Charlotte Tate Collyer, who had contracted tuberculosis, and their daughter, Marjorie, 8, were traveling second class.
Mrs. John Jacob Astor IV (Madeline Talmage Force). She was 18 years old (only one year younger than his eldest son, Vincent) and pregnant. The family traveled first class with a maid, nurse, manservant and family dog, an Airedale named Kitty.
Mrs. Antoni Yazbeck (Selini Alexander), age 15, from Lebanon, who was in an arranged marriage with a successful shoe merchant. The destination of the couple, who had married 50 days earlier, was Wilkes Barre, Pa. They had third-class accommodations.
Samuel L. Goldenberg, 47, from Paris and one of the principal founders of the French Bulldog Club. He and his wife, Nella Wiggins Goldenberg, were en route to the French Bulldog Club of America show in New York City.
We all survived.
But in the end, the message from the Titanic exhibit appears to be: Don’t count on anything. Existence is fragile, life is uncertain and fate often intervenes in human affairs.
The words of Irish philosopher Jack Foster, on an exhibit hall wall, sums it up: “We are all passengers on the Titanic.”