Leaving Liverpool, I felt that it must have been a tragedy for the city’s heritage to have this major shipping disaster hit Edwardian Liverpool with the sinking of the White Star Liner Titanic in 1912. However, through our tours, the city appeared to move past the tragedy and embrace Titanic and step forward to recognize those who lost their lives.
We are now off to Belfast, Ireland, where Titanic became a reality. Belfast has remained very famous in the last 100 years for its ship building. Ship building was one of Belfast’s biggest industries, employing thousands of people at its peak. Many Belfast men worked in the ship yards on some of the biggest and best ocean liners of the early 20th century.
Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyard was one of the largest in the world, but none of its slips were big enough to hold the new liner Titanic or its sister ship Olympic. Three of the existing slips were combined into two giant new ones. The Olympic and Titanic were built side by side but construction on the Olympic began three and a half months ahead of the Titanic.
Construction on the Titanic began on March 31, 1909. At the peak of construction, Harland and Wolff shipyard employed approximately 15,000 men to build the enormous ships. It took over one year to fully frame the Titanic. In May 1911, the Titanic hull and main structure were completed and the ship launched for the interior fitting. In 1912, when the ship was completed, it was the largest manmade object ever built.
On April 2, 1912, the Titanic completed its sea trials and was deemed sea worthy. The captain of the Titanic, Captain Smith and his officers all participated. At 8 pm that same evening they guided the Titanic into the Irish Sea and headed for Southampton. A few short days later, the Titanic would set sail on its maiden and only voyage.
Belfast-The Ship of Dreams comes alive
We arrived in Belfast to find an atmosphere of recognition and a sense of pride to have much of Titanic’s construction infrastructure still here today. Our room on the ship faced directly across from the dry dock used by Titanic and many other ships as well as the huge gantries, Samson and Goliath, built and used for the construction. This equipment was not just an artifact or a picture but major parts of the infrastructure used to build these massive ships 100 years ago.
Our tour, “In the Footsteps of Titanic”, began very quickly and seemed to bring the Titanic alive again right before our eyes. We traveled to Queens Island, in the Titanic Quarter, where there were so many major components used in the creation of Titanic. Our first stop was the Harland and Wolff offices where the preliminary ideas were turned into designs and then into detailed construction drawings. It was here that the many decisions were made to create the Titanic. We actually were able to tour the management offices. When entering the building it was dusty, cold, and run down but it gave you a true feeling of going back in time. It appeared that the building had been locked up for many decades and never touched since then. Both drafting offices were available to see even though the paint was peeling and the room was very run down but you could only imagine the thoughts and ideas that were born in these rooms to make Titanic the largest object ever made. We then visited Thomas Andrews’ office where his desk still stood with scratch marks and discoloration. Down the hall was the board room where meetings were held and decisions were made about the building of Titanic. Our tour guide made a statement that I thought was compelling “To think perhaps if some of the decisions made in this room were made differently all of us might of not been here visiting 100 years later”.
We walked out of the building to view the spectacular new Belfast Titanic Museum. It opened just a week ago and has already been sold out. It was built on the same grounds of the building docks used for the Titanic, Olympic and other ships. The docks have been modified to support the museum as well as plans in place for further refurbishment of the area. We were able to view the railroad tracks used to move construction materials. You really felt the enormous scale of the construction. The tour guide showed us several pictures taken during construction and placed them in the same position so we could compare today to the picture taken 100 years ago. If you closed your eyes you could imagine standing in the location 100 years ago. We then traveled to the next stop and on the way we saw The Nomadic which was in the process of restoration. The Nomadic is the last existing White Star Line vessel.
Titanic’s first stop on its maiden voyage was Cherbourg, France. The harbor was too small to accommodate Titanic’s size so there were two White Star tenders (small steamships) Nomadic and Traffic that had been built especially to carry Cherbourg passengers, luggage, and mail from the docks to the Olympic and the Titanic. Margaret Brown had taken a six hour train from Paris to board Titanic at Cherbourg. There were a total of 274 passengers (consisting of all classes) picked up in Cherbourg. Our tour guide explained there were many people boarded using the Nomadic but there were three people that we should all know that tendered aboard the Nomadic – Benjamin Guggenheim, John Jacob Astor, and Margaret Brown. Our tour guide asked everyone what Margaret “Molly” Brown was known for, and a bus full of 50 people chimed in “Unsinkable”. I of course smiled and did not comment about the unsinkable part.
The next stop at the dry dock and the pump house brought Titanic to reality and in many ways very much alive. We tell the story of her length as compared to three football fields but until you see it you really cannot put it into perspective. What amazed me was not only the size, but the technology they used to bring her into dry dock and let her slip away after the fitting was completed.
The pump house provided the power to support all operations. It was steam powered and primarily drove the hydraulic accelerator which was a tank of water that was raised into the air, then pressure was required to support one of the systems, it was then lowered and the water was forced through a small pipe increasing the pressure to 750 psi. It was used to drive the dry dock gate, the winch used to pull the Titanic and to open the flood gates and power the drains which could empty the full dry dock in 90 minutes.
As the tour completed, the tour guide shared some humor on the history and is perhaps a little more truth than humor reflecting on how Belfast has felt about Titanic; “The Titanic was fine when she left here”. I asked him why he is so fascinated with the Titanic. He shared with me that we have to remember that there have been over 1,700 ships built here, but we should celebrate the successes (i.e., Olympic) and not only remember the one failure.
Once again, as we departed, I could see the dry dock from our ship, and I could only imagine for a moment as I closed my eyes, how Titanic looked when it glided out of the slip to start its maiden voyage.
We are now sailing back to Southampton. On our journey so far, we have experienced the creation of idea of the Ship of Dreams in Liverpool and the building of the ship in Belfast. Now it is the time to travel to pay our respects to Titanic through the Titanic Memorial Cruise. I feel excitement as I go forward on my Chase for Molly.