A Bit of Newark Went Down with the Ship into That Frigid Sea

History and Landscape
Published January 8, 1998

A Bit of Newark Went Down with the Ship into That Frigid Sea

| Published January 8, 1998

The grave of Newarker John March, who was in charge of the Titanic's mail room and perished when the ship went down. The Newark Public Library

On the evening of April 14, 1912, one of the world's worst maritime disasters occurred in the Atlantic approximately 100 miles off Newfoundland's Grand Banks: the sinking of the Titanic, the 'ship that God couldn't even sink.' With the movie 'Titanic' making a big splash on the silver screen, today's column explores the RMS Titanic's Newark connection.

Fifteen hundred of the 2,224 passengers and crew died in a series of calamities that started with a 300-foot wound in the ship's side. Within hours, the watertight compartments and double hull filled with ocean water, causing the world's greatest ship to founder at 2:20 a.m. on April 15. What was called 'the most terrible shipwreck in history' indeed was an appalling nautical catastrophe, one that brought about official inquiries in both Great Britain and the United States, the near bankruptcy of the White Star Line, an endless number of lawsuits and settlements, future provisions for ship and ocean travel in general, and an attempt to patrol the oceans on a regular basis for ice floes.

In 1913, the First International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea took place. As a result, every future ship had to be outfitted with sufficient lifeboats for its passengers and crew. Lifeboat drills were required on all future voyages, and wireless service was mandated on a 24-hour basis. If these regulations had been in effect in 1912, hundreds would have been spared, for as the Titanic was sinking, another ship, the Californian, was only a couple of miles away – its radio contact turned off. A third ship, the Carpathia, risked its own safety to come to the Titanic's rescue through the same ice fields in an effort to save as many victims as possible.

The ship

The Titanic was the greatest product of maritime engineering and construction at the beginning of the century. It represented the ultimate in mercantile ocean-going vessels. Until that time, nothing was comparable to the magnitude, speed, beauty, elegance and lavish interiors of this floating palace. It was the 46,000-ton flagship of Britain's White Star Line, built between 1910 and 1912 in the shipyards of Harland and Wolff at Belfast, Ireland. The Titanic was 882.5 feet long, 92.5 feet across the beam, and constructed to be operated by a crew of 700. Its watertight compartments and bulkheads could be activated to seal off compartments to contain any emergency should the hull be breached. As a result, it was considered totally unsinkable. But, even before the ship's maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, a freak near-accident occurred, taken later as a bad omen. While moored at Berth 38, a near-collision with the liner New York illustrated the point that while the technology existed to build such a colossal vessel, there might not yet be adequate skills to operate it in all situations. The Southampton event was an incident, not an accident, largely because of the quick actions of the Titanic's captain, Edward Smith.

Shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912, the Titanic collided with an enormous iceberg. Two hours and forty minutes later it went to the bottom of the sea, giving it the dubious distinction of the world's worst sea disaster. The tragedy occurred during the fifth day of the maiden voyage at a time when most passengers were planning to retire for the evening. Suddenly the breakneck speed of 22 knots was reduced to nothing. Passengers reported a dull thud throughout the ship. Others reported experiencing only a great silence. But Smith knew what had happened, and did J. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line, who had urged the excessive speed through the threatening iceberg fields. The extensive gash in the side of the great ship was its death blow. Hurriedly, the crew set about rousing passengers to take to the lifeboats. Soon it was discovered that there were not enough seats for all those on board. As death faced the ship's passengers there was a display of human emotions from the heroic to pathetic. Ida Straus, wife of the great New York department store owner Isidor Straus, refused to leave her husband behind and died with him. Maj. Archibald Butt, President William Howard Taft's aide, vowed to 'shoot the first man who tried to reach the lifeboats before all the women and children were boarded.' Col. John Jacob Astor of hotel fame also perished, as did Newarker John S. March, who was in charge of the Titanic's mail room. March, who lived on Emmet Street, was the postmaster of the ship and had sailed on ocean liners for a decade, including the liner Olympic. He was a Middletown native and served as a railway postal clerk in Port Jervis, N.Y., before moving to Newark in 1904, where he lived at the time of his death.

As the ship was on the verge of disappearing beneath the waterline, its orchestra was reported to have been playing 'Songe d'Automne, ' which many interpreted as 'Nearer My God to Thee.' Suddenly, a huge ship's funnel collapsed and fell into the water, killing many who were clinging to deck chairs and life preservers. According to one report, 'The stern rose into the air, the ship broke in two between the third and fourth funnels, the bow section fell to the ocean floor, and the stern remained afloat for a few minutes before sinking too.' Suddenly, there was stillness. The end of an era had come even before it had begun. The impossible had happened – man's technology was still no match for Mother Nature. Only a few miles away, the liner Californian at first ignored the Titanic's distress flares. Its wireless radio had been turned off earlier in the evening. Fortunately for the 700 survivors, the Cunard liner Carpathia did heed the distress call and rerouted its path to come to the rescue of the sinking ship by risking the same icebergs at a tremendous speed of nearly 17 knots.

So ended one of the great and disastrous chapters in the early history of the 20th century. Stories of the event have continued today. A whole literature, even folklore, has arisen to keep interest alive. Of the nearly 2,250 passengers and crew members on the ill-starred ship, 16 were from New Jersey. Ten were lost and six survived. News accounts of the event were often inaccurate or incomplete because of reporting problems and a lack of modern communication facilities. A final count of those lost, besides March, included Stephen W. Blackwell of Trenton, Leonard Moore of Hoboken, Peter Renouf of Elizabeth, Washington A. Roebling 2nd of Trenton, and W.A.Walker of East Orange. Survivors included Henry Blank of Glen Ridge, Elizabeth H. Burns of Newark, Mrs. Peter Renouf and Augustus Weikem of Palmyra, Burlington County, 'whose escape was almost miraculous.' Weikem was a ship's barber who was blown off an upper deck by the force of a second explosion. He ended up in the sea clinging to a bundle of armchairs, which kept him afloat for two hours until his rescue.

Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. H. Stengel of 1075 Broad St., Newark, were among the first-class passengers awakened at 11:40 p.m. during the last leg of their extended European holiday. Mrs. Strengel, an attractive 'slight blonde who played the piano and sang, ' was directed into a 'lifeboat for women, not knowing if she would ever see her husband again' as the great liner slipped into the ocean. As it turned out, the Strengels were among only a handful of couples to be reunited later aboard the Carpathia. Seemingly unflustered in the face of great peril, she walked forward and 'pinned a veil down tightly over her floral hat so that it wouldn't blow off and went with the other ladies into the lifeboat.' In a separate craft, her husband took command and kept it afloat until help arrived. For the next six hours, the Stengels were in separate lifeboats and out of contact. Years later she was quoted as saying that seeing her husband on the Carpathia deck was 'the nearest thing I've ever known to heaven on earth.' In fact, after their shipboard reunion, the Stengels wired home, requesting that family, friends and his business partner meet them on the New York dock for a festive celebration. Three carloads of happy Newarkers gathered to hear Stengel tell the crowd of his 'deep sense of gratitude that he and his wife were among the luckiest of the ill-starred passengers and were restored to their loved ones after being well within the valley of the shadow of death.' Certainly, there was no happier family in Broad Street or all of Newark than the Stengels upon their safe return home. Two years later, Stengel died, but his wife, Annie May, continued to travel throughout the rest of her life, dying at 88 in 1956 while on a trip to Connecticut.

Eighty-six years later, as we near the end of this century, we continue to look back at one of the most horrific sea tragedies of all time, and the New Jerseyans and Newarkers who took part in that terrible journey. Truly, we continue to be fascinated in literature, movies, Broadway and the whole popular culture by the event as it is evolved from history to folklore to legend and we note Newark's connection to the saga.