The Titanic’s First Near Collision!

For those who don’t know, I am by training a Civil War historian and an Abraham Lincoln scholar. But, my first passion has always been the maiden voyage and sinking of the RMS Titanic. Coincidentally, I might add, the subjects of Lincoln and the Titanic share a common bond–the dates April 14 and 15 are not only the anniversary of the ship’s sinking, but also the President’s assassination!

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The Titanic and President Lincoln share an important date! They both met their ends on the night of April 14-15! The Titanic sank exactly forty-seven years after Lincoln’s assassination.
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But I digress…

Today, April 10, marks the beginning of the 107th commemoration of the Titanic‘s maiden voyage. As such, I thought making it the topic of this week’s blog post might be a fitting way to remember the event.

Specifically, though, I’m going to talk about a little known fact about the maiden voyage. Did you know that the Titanic’s voyage almost didn’t happen? 107 years ago today, as the RMS Titanic departed Southampton, England on its way to it’s first port of call in Cherbourg, France, the massive liner nearly collided with another ship, keeping it from departing at all!

As it passed alongside two smaller vessels tethered to the pier–the White Star Line’s Oceanic and the American Line’s New York–the suction from the Titanic‘s propellers drew the New York away from the Oceanic until its tethers snapped like gunshots. In an instant, the New York was free from it’s moorings, and it’s stern was swinging directly toward the Titanic‘s port side.

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The stern of the New York swings perilously toward the Titanic‘s port side. This photograph was taken from the Southampton pier.

Onboard the Titanic, while passengers congregated along the rails to witness the impending collision, on the bridge Captain Edward J. Smith and Southampton pilot George Bowyer made a quick decision to increase speed to the Titanic‘s port propeller. The sudden rush of water was just enough to push the smaller New York away from the Titanic‘s side. Smith then ordered the engines stopped. At the same time, the crew of the tug Vulcan secured a line to the New York, and pull it forward and clear of the Titanic‘s stationary bow. The New York was then rejoined to the pier, and the Titanic continued on her way.

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The New York is pulled by the tug Vulcan away from the Titanic’s stationary bow. This photograph was taken by a passenger on the Titanic’s deck. The passenger later disembarked at Queenstown, Ireland (the Titanic’s last port of call) and developed his film after the sinking.

The incident happened in only a matter of minutes, and almost no one took it as anything more than a passing moment of excitement in an otherwise easy send off. One second class passenger, however, was later remembered by his daughter as turning to his wife and saying “that’s a bad omen for a start.” Four days later, he died when the Titanic sank after failing to avoid a second collision…this time with the fateful iceberg.

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The Titanic continues on it’s fateful voyage. This photograph was taken from the deck of the New York as the Titanic passed by.

I have been fascinated by this ship, and her story, since I was a boy of six years old. I was born a few years before Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the wreck in 1985 laying in 2.5 miles of water some four-hundred miles off the coast of Newfoundland. I remember my Uncle Joe showing me a National Geographic Magazine with photos from Dr. Ballard’s 1986 expedition, and from there I was hooked!

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National Geographic Magazine had exclusive rights to publish Dr. Ballard’s first images of the Titanic on the bottom of the Atlantic. This is the cover of the 1985 issue.

Today, my personal library spans some two-thousand volumes. A sizable portion of that library–about one-hundred books–cover the Titanic and her story. In my office at Western Wyoming Community College, however, are my most prized items related to the Titanic. Along with a first edition of Walter Lord’s classic 1952 account of the disaster, A Night to Remember, is a first edition of his follow up volume The Night Lives On–written after the discovery of the wreck. Between them is an original 1912 printing of the Sinking of the Titanic–written by a reporter as a means of cashing in on the frenzy of interest surrounding the event. And in front of these volumes is my favorite item: a piece of anthracite coal retrieved from the wreck of the Titanic in the early 1990s and purchased for me as a birthday present by my father.

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On Dr. Neels’ desk at Western Wyoming Community College are first editions of three influential books on the story of the Titanic, one from 1952 (left), one from the 1980s (right), and one written right after the sinking in 1912 (center). But his most prized possession is a piece of anthracite coal from the wreck itself (bottom).

If it weren’t for the Titanic, I might not be a historian today! So, this Sunday, April 14, I will raise a glass in memory of the event that made me the scholar I am today!

— m.a.n.

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Drs. Dana Pertermann & Mark Neels

Friends, colleagues, and sparing partners, Drs. Dana L. Pertermann and Mark A. Neels collaborate on research in military history, politics, and culture. They are currently both college professors in Wyoming. They blog weekly about the past, the present, and the future of the U.S. and the world.

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