Hudson Then . . . Again
by Maureen Wlodarczyk
Fifteen years ago, I was among the wave of millions who flocked to theaters to see James Cameron’s epic film, Titanic, an unqualified hit that brought the story of the 1912 tragedy back to life. April 15th marked 100 years since the tragic deaths of 1,500 passengers and crew who lost their lives in the dark, biting-cold waters of the Atlantic, and that anniversary has rekindled widespread interest in the story once again.
Part of the lure of this true story is its magnitude and scale: an “unsinkable” ship on its maiden voyage, thousands of passengers, among them the rich and famous and those scraping by in steerage class hoping for a new start in America. No work of fiction launched from the creative recesses of a novelist’s mind or a screenwriter’s imagination could better convey the seeming randomness and unpredictability of life and death.
Among the Titanic passengers were a number of Hudson County residents including a Union Hill governess and young Bayonne bartender who both survived and a 21-year-old man from Hoboken and a 23-year-old man from Jersey City who did not. Each of the young men who had lost his life had booked passage on the Titanic after visiting his mother, one in London and the other in County Longford, Ireland. The loss to be endured by the Irish mother, Mrs. Kiernan, was cruelly multiplied by the fact that a second son, hearing his expatriate brother’s glowing descriptions of life in America, decided to accompany him back to the States and also lost his life when the Titanic went down.
The young bartender from Bayonne, Thomas McCormack, was also returning from a trip to his Irish homeland. Unlike his neighbors from Hoboken and Jersey City, Thomas had the good fortune of being plucked from the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean by the crew of the ship Carpathia and lived to be reunited with three sisters living on West Twentieth Street in Bayonne.
Miss Elizabeth Dowdell, of Park Ave in Union Hill (now Union City), a 31-year-old governess, boarded the Titanic in Southampton England, traveling in a third class cabin along with her charge, 6-year-old Virginia, the daughter of opera singer Estelle Emmanuel. Both escaped the sinking ship after being carried bodily aboard lifeboat number 13 and subsequently being rescued by the Carpathia. Arriving in New York, the governess wept as she delivered Virginia into the arms of the child’s grateful grandparents. Elizabeth then returned home to the elation of her own mother in Union Hill and was interviewed by reporters from several local newspapers. Her chilling, first-person account of the massive liner’s final death throes sheds light on the terror gripping the seventy desperate souls wedged into lifeboat 13 in the cold and darkness:
“I had put Virginia to bed and was preparing to retire when the crash came . . . a terrible shiver went through the ship. I went to the passageway and asked a steward what was wrong. He assured me everything was all right and scarcely had I closed the door before someone came running along the passage ordering all hands to dress and put on a life belt.
I took time getting ready. I firmly believed Titanic was unsinkable. When we tried to get to the deck, the stairways were so crowded that we could not use them . . . the cries and curses were terrible to hear. Finally some of the men passengers realized it would be impossible to get up the stairways and hoisted women and children up to seaman on the gallery above. When we arrived on deck nearly all of the boats were off but we were carried onto number 13. Several men tried to rush in on us before we were lowered. I saw an officer shoot three of them.
We plainly saw the iceberg and the gaping hole in the side of the ship . . . the sea rushed in in torrents. No sooner were we off than the Titanic began to go down rapidly, the bow disappearing first. There was no playing by the bands . . . only the cries and sobs of those still aboard and in the boats heard above the wash of the sea.”
Elizabeth Dowdell lived a long life and in December 1958, at age 78, attended the New York premiere of the movie “A Night to Remember,” the first feature film about the Titanic disaster.
Maureen Wlodarczyk is a fourth-generation-born Jersey City girl and the author of three books about life in Jersey City in the 1800s and early 1900s: Past-Forward: A Three-Decade and Three-Thousand-Mile Journey Home, Young & Wicked: The Death of a Wayward Girl and Canary in a Cage: The Smith-Bennett Murder Case. For info: www.past-forward.com.
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