At noon on April 10th, 1912, the Titanic set sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage. Less than 5 days later, she disappeared to the bottom of the North Atlantic, becoming one of the largest maritime disasters in history. While most everyone is familiar with the basic story of the RMS Titanic’s untimely demise, it continues to haunt history with its dualities of ambition and failure, opulence and austerity, tragedy and hope. Over 100 years after the sinking, the wreck clings to our collective imagination and tantalizes us with a drama of hubris and heartbreak.
When the Titanic was first launched, she was a marvel of Edwardian engineering. At that time, she was the biggest and most luxurious ship ever built…in fact, she was the largest moving object yet constructed in the history of all of humanity! And the technologies she was equipped with were state-of-the-art. Besides an ingenious control panel that managed all of the fans, generators and lighting on the ship, she was outfitted with one of the most powerful systems for the nascent Marconi wireless. Wireless telegraphy, or radio as it was later known, was relatively new at the turn of the last century. Without it, it is likely that not a single soul would have survived to tell the Titanic’s story. Yet despite all of the advances in construction and technology, the ship still foundered. The inquiries into the circumstances and consequences have prompted even further innovations making sailing today safer and more comfortable than ever before.
One of the reasons the Titanic story is dear to Avalon is that one of the survivors of the tragedy later became a resident on the island. Mrs. Lillian Minahan was 37 when she boarded the Titanic in Queenstown with her husband, William, and his sister, Daisy. They had been vacationing abroad to explore their ancestral Ireland.
On that fateful Sunday of April 14, 1912, Lillian had spent the evening with her husband and Daisy at the Café Parisien on B Deck, in the company of Captain Smith and other notable first-class passengers. They retired to their cabin around 9:30pm due to the frigid air but were awakened hours later by a woman’s cries coming from outside their cabin.
They quickly dressed and gathered blankets before heading up to the portside boat deck, where Mr. Minahan assisted in lowering the lifeboats. He helped Daisy and Lillian into lifeboat No. 14 which was under the charge of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe. “Be brave,” were the last two words he spoke as he kissed Lillian for the final time and her lifeboat was lowered into the arctic sea. She never saw him again.
Years later, during World War II, Lillian moved to Catalina with her then-husband, Mr. C. D. Danielson who was stationed on the island. Even though Catalina was closed to tourism during the war years, Avalon had already become a favorite retreat for her, and she came often, staying with friends and family at the Holt residence at 220 Clarissa Avenue.
Lillian’s story, and many others, is currently on view in the Catalina Island Museum’s exhibition, Titanic: Real Artifacts, Real People, Real Stories. Through related artifacts, images, and personal belongings, the exhibit shares the accounts of the passengers and crew on that fateful crossing, offering viewers an opportunity to touch the lives of those who set sail on the “unsinkable” ship.
Many of the artifacts have never been exhibited publicly and the stories related to them have yet to be told. On view are the actual cups people sipped their coffee from, a blanket used to keep warm while shivering aboard one of the lifeboats, and sheets of music the band used to play the music to keep passengers calm until the final minutes. Each archive is a portrait of a life from long ago. Their faces seem to peer out through the years and challenge us to remember their legacies—to experience the acts of love and courage as passengers and crew fought against time and the odds to save each other and their families.
To learn more about the Titanic and the rich and varied history of Santa Catalina Island, be sure to visit the Catalina Island Museum during your next visit. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm.
by Johnny Sampson - Director of Exhibitions, Catalina Island Museum