The Commonwealth Blog

Eyewitness Account of Titanic Tragedy Heard by Commonwealth Club

Apr 10, 2012 @ 10:31 AM by jzipperer

 

There is an internet meme this week of young people on Twitter allegedly expressing their shock at learning that the Titanic disaster was real; they had thought it was only a movie. Whether that meme itself is real or not, it suggests that what was once an event that captured the horrified attention of millions of people is now known mainly through the lens of James Cameron's blockbuster movie. 
 
But on May 11, 1912, The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco heard a first-person account of the sinking of the Titanic just a few weeks earlier, on April 15, 1912. Commonwealth Club member Dr. Washington Dodge had the misfortune to be a passenger on the ill-fated ship with his family (all survived, though newspaper reports at the time of their return to San Francisco noted that their five-year-old son was suffering after-effects of the chill of being in the open ocean).
 
If you peruse through the Transactions of the Commonwealth Club of California, big bound books of reports that eventually evolved into the Club's current membership magazine, you will be hard pressed to find Dr. Dodge's speech transcribed. The editors at the time apparently thought it was more important to publish every single word of apparently voluminous discussions and debates about irrigation policies. But SFMuseum.org has posted the San Francisco Chronicle's report of Dodge's speech, and it gives a good sense of what it was like to be stuck on the stricken vessel. You can read the entire article here.
 
People who thought Titanic was only a movie probably were rooting for James Cameron's heroes and booing the villains, including the ineffectual Captain Edward John Smith. In the film, the captain dies after uselessly retreating to the bridge. But according to Dodge's telling, the captain was actively involved in getting passengers off the ship. "When the order to launch the [life]boats was given, Captain Smith took command of the port side and never left there," Dodge told the largest audience The Commonwealth Club had yet had at that point.
 
Dodge lays the blame for the large numbers of dead on the widely held expectation that the ship would take many more hours to sink than it did:
 
"Those who swam from the sinking steamer at the last moment had no idea that the vessel was in danger of sinking until her bow suddenly sank deeper in the waters a few moments before she sank. As they stated, had they believed the vessel was in any danger of sinking, they would have had sufficient time, following the launching of the lifeboats, to have prepared temporary life rafts sufficient, in that calm sea, to have saved the lives of hundreds."
 
"…These survivors stated, however, that until the sudden downward dip of the vessel forward, coincident with the rush on to the boat deck of the steerage passengers, they did not apprehend that there was any danger of the vessel sinking for hours."
 
In the end, 1,514 lives were lost directly by the ship's sinking. 
 
And add at least one life lost indirectly, years later. Dr. Washington Dodge committed suicide in 1919.
 
–John Zipperer