110 years after it sank, Titanic continues to capture the public’s imagination

Although it sank 110 years ago during its maiden voyage, the RMS Titanic looms as large in the public’s imagination today as it ever did.

The stories associated with the great White Star Line ocean liner have moved seamlessly from traditional media – books and films – to social media where they continue to captivate.

Titanic struck an iceberg while speeding toward New York. It sank 700 nautical miles (1,296 kilometers) east of Halifax on April 15, 1912.

Roger Marsters, curator of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, says Titanic’s connection to Halifax was almost incidental as it was the nearest mainland port from which a recovery could be mounted.

 

Roger Marsters is curator of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. (Craig Paisley / CBC)

 

Titanic had a grip on the collective imagination prior to James Cameron’s 1997 film, Marsters said. But, by attaching star-crossed lovers to a story of hubris and extravagance, the film fixed the events in the public’s imagination.

“We have people from all over the world coming to Fairview Lawn and to Mount Olivet to visit the graves of people they’ve never met and have never known, but with whom they feel a strong connection because of the powerful, imaginative grip of the Titanic story, “he said.

 

Rafael Avila shares Titanic information on his social media platforms as the Titanic Guy. (© 2017 Stephen James Hutchinson)

 

As the port where recovered bodies were brought to in the wake of the tragedy, Halifax is home to 150 Titanic graves – the most in the world.

Marsters said the Titanic story seems to refresh itself with each generation. From the point of view of the museum, it is a way to bring new people to maritime history.

Rafael Avila, a 32-year-old social media personality better known online as the Titanic Guy, spends his time presenting trivia about Titanic and correcting inaccurate information about the ship he sees online.

 

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, left, are shown in the movie Titanic. (Paramount Pictures / Associated Press)

 

His TikTok channel has over 600,000 subscribers and almost 34 million likes.

Avila said he was seven in 1997 when he saw a documentary about a ship that sank and he asked his father what it was about.

 

Titanic graves at Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax. (Vernon Ramesar / CBC)

 

His father told him it was about a famous ship that was one of the biggest in the world and was brand new when it sank.

Fascinated by the story, Avila said he convinced his parents to take him to see the popular film in December of that year and that solidified his interest.

Avila said that the Titanic story was largely forgotten in the years after the sinking.

The book A Night to Remember, published in 1955, and a subsequent film in 1958 rekindled interest, he said.

The release of Cameron’s film led to an exponential growth in interest, according to Avila, and it then moved into the sphere of social media.

“It represented all these different things, grandeur, hope, opportunity, and then for it to come crashing down with something so simple as an iceberg,” Avila said. “It was like a theater that played out in the middle of the ocean.”

 

Historian and author Bob Chaulk has written two books on the SS Atlantic. (Jon Tattrie / CBC)

 

The Toronto-based Avila said he has never been to Halifax but he knows he will visit one day to see artifacts and visit the Titanic graves in person.

Although Titanic is undoubtedly the most famous of them, three ships connected to the company left an indelible mark on the province.

In 1873, the SS Atlantic crashed into a rock near Prospect Bay, resulting in the deaths of around 550 people.

According to Bob Chaulk, the author of two books on the SS Atlantic, the ship bound for New York had 950 passengers on board

Chaulk said the chief engineer determined a week into the journey that there wasn’t enough coal on board. The captain decided to divert to Halifax to refuel, which would turn out to be a fatal decision.

 

Victims of the SS Atlantic are rescued from the wreck on April 1, 1873. (Nova Scotia Archives [William Notman photograph, W.R. MacAskill accession no. 1987-453 no. 3249])

 

Of the four deck officers, Chaulk said, only one had sailed into Halifax before.

As the ship approached Halifax at night, the ship ran aground on a rock that was quite close to shore. The bow of the ship rode up on the rock and the stern immediately submerged, Chaulk said.

Because it happened in the early hours of the morning, Chaulk said most passengers were below deck with women and children sleeping below deck in the stern area.

 

Some of the victims of the wreck of the SS Atlantic were buried in a mass grave in Terence Bay. (Nova Scotia Archives / W.Chase, neg. No .: N-0719)

 

No women survived the disaster and only one child was rescued.

“It was [3 a.m.]some of them just drowned in their beds, didn’t even get out of bed, “he said.

Chaulk said the real miracle to him was that 400 people survived. He said that was largely because of the heroic efforts of residents of Lower Prospect and Terence Bay who mounted a rescue effort.

 

A monument to those who perished on the SS Atlantic was erected in Prospect in 1915. (CBC)

 

To this day it remains the worst shipwreck in Nova Scotia history and the second worst in Canadian history after the Empress of Ireland, according to Chaulk.

In 1917, the former White Star Line SS Runic had by far the biggest impact on the history of Nova Scotia.

From its launch date in 1889 until the vessel was sold in 1895, it served to carry livestock and passengers for the White Star Line.

On Dec. 6, 1917, the ship, by then renamed the SS Imo, collided with the ammunition ship SS Mont-Blanc in Halifax harbor, triggering an explosion that killed 1,600 people and caused widespread destruction.

 

Victorian tourists visit the site of the SS Atlantic in Terence Bay, NS (Nova Scotia Archives [W. Chase no. 32/neg. no.: N-0720])

 

Marsters said the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has artifacts and exhibits from all three White Star Line vessels.

He said in some ways the story of the three ships is also a story of how Nova Scotians respond to tragedy.

“These three quite well-known White Star wrecks are indicative of broader processes of maritime activity that have meant that, for hundreds of years, people living in Mi’kma’ki, people living in Nova Scotia, have always stood by to help people who are in peril at sea, “he said.

“I think that’s a legacy that continues today and that is valuable to continue to cultivate.”

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