SCI and the Titanic: 100 Years Ago

Mar 26, 2012

by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist

Use the following link to view the digital exhibit, “SCI and the Titanic,” hosted by Queens College Special Collections and Archives:

When SCI officially began its work as a maritime ministry, it operated through missionary outposts scattered throughout Lower Manhattan. In addition to the iconic floating chapels (of which there were three), outposts at Pike Street, West Street and 1 State Street offered free reading material and tea or coffee for seafarers. That model changed in 1905, when SCI’s Building Committee purchased land at Coenties Slip and launched a fundraising campaign to finance construction of a centralized headquarters.

The city’s philanthropists came out in full support of the project. JP Morgan led the effort with a $100,000 donation, while John D. Rockefeller donated the second highest amount—a respectable $50,000. Henry C. Frick, Augustus D. Julliard, Andrew Carnegie and a trio of Vanderbilts (Frederick, William and Alfred) also numbered among SCI’s founding donors. With such high profile support, the cornerstone laying ceremony for the new building promised to be a grand event. The date was set: April 16, 1912. Hours before the guests assembled in the auditorium of the unfinished building, tragic news struck the New York waterfront—the unsinkable Titanic was lost.

The ceremony proceeded as planned, with speakers making last minute edits to their speeches to address the tragedy. Mayor William Jay Gaynor spoke first before sealing the cornerstone shut with a Bible, SCI’s annual reports, and copies of New York daily papers displaying headlines of the Titanic’s sinking on their covers. SCI took up a collection to donate to the victims’ families and dedicated two of the new building’s bedrooms in honor of the Titanic’s crew. Building Committee President Edmund L. Baylies ended his speech with some reflections on the recent tragedy, still so fresh that he could only speculate as to the true nature of the accident:

“When we learn the full details of the overwhelming disaster which has just taken place, I feel sure that the minds and hearts of each one of my hearers will be thrilled with deeds of heroism on the part of sailors. The history of the sea is full of such examples, and in attempting to establish here a home for some of the five hundred thousand men who annually come to our port, we landsmen are paying but a very small portion of the debt which we owe to those who follow the sea with so faithful and watchful care over those who travel on the great deep.”

The archival materials related to the cornerstone laying ceremony offer some of the earliest recorded reactions to the Titanic disaster, providing primary insight into the collective trauma and mourning that occurred in Lower Manhattan hours after news of the accident reached port.

On April 18, the Carpathia finally reached New York City’s Pier 54 with the Titanic’s survivors. More than 200 crewmembers had lived, and SCI was on hand to welcome them back to land. The American Seamen’s Friend Society at 507 West Street hosted the crew, and SCI staff assisted in the distribution of clothing and toiletries to replace the items lost in the wreck. Men received a full suit of clothes, boots and a cap, as well as a razor and comb, while the 20 surviving stewardesses received complete outfits. SCI helped provide refreshments and led a simple church service to mourn the friends and coworkers who did not make it back to shore.

One year to the day after the Titanic’s sinking, SCI dedicated the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse on the roof of its completed 12-story headquarters at 25 South Street. It was a rainy day, forcing the crowd gathered for the ceremony to retreat inside to the auditorium. Some 300 onlookers joined SCI officials as the lighthouse was installed, rising out of the mist “impressive, dignified, a little detached from New York and the surrounding skyscrapers which form its background.” The Lighthouse housed a unique green light, powerful enough to reach from the Narrows to Sandy Hook. A time ball, designed to drop every day at noon, also featured in the Lighthouse’s design. It quickly became an iconic addition to the New York City skyline.

The Lighthouse remained at 25 South Street until 1968, when, after 55 years of service, SCI moved its headquarters to 15 State Street and the old building was demolished. SCI salvaged the Lighthouse and donated it to the South Street Seaport Museum, who had it installed on the corner of Fulton and Water streets, where it remains today amid the skyscraping financial buildings and cobblestone seaport blocks. Now, a small park surrounds the Lighthouse, providing a space for people to stop and reflect on the tragedy and its impact on Lower Manhattan one hundred years ago.