Friday, 13 December 2013

RMS Republic (1903)

Launched in 1903 and built by Harland and Wolff of Belfast, the RMS Republic was a steamship of 15 400 tons,  powered by twin expansion steam engines driving twin screws, and averaging a relatively quick, 16 knots. 570 ft in length, she was the pride of the White Star Line and one of the largest steamships of the time.

The Republic was designed primarily for passenger transport - 2830 passengers and 300 crew. She quickly acquired the label 'Millionaires' Ship' due to her luxurious appointments, comfort and wealthy passengers. She was also reportedly very sturdy and viewed as a safe option for transAtlantic travel.

On the morning of 23 January 1909 en route from New York to Gibraltar, she sailed into thick fog off Nantucket. Commanded by William Inman Sealby she carried 742 passengers and crew. Due to thickness of the fog and poor visibility the captain reduced speed and blew the ship's whistle as per protocol. A reply whistle was heard prompting the captain to reverse engines and turn hard to port. Unfortunately it was too late and out of the fog emerged the SS Florida which collided with the Republic at a right angle 'midships, instantly killing two sleeping passengers. These were Eugene Lynch's (liquor magnate) wife Mary and the wealthy banker, W.J. Mooney (not in the same cabin!). On the Florida six crewmen were killed bringing the total casualties from the collision to eight.

On board this voyage were such celebrities of the time as Mrs Sophie Curtis, wife of George Curtis; Mrs Mary Severance; Professor John M. Coulter; General Baryton C. Ives; Mr Samuel Cupples a well known St Louis millionaire; Mildred Montague; Countess Pasolini; Mrs Bessie Davis, daughter-in-law of senator Henry G. Davis.

The engine and boiler rooms of the Republic were first to flood and caused the steamer to list dramatically. The Florida, in no danger of capsizing, came about to assist with the rescue of passengers, later joined by the cutter Gresham, responding to the historic distress call. The Florida took on the majority of passengers which together with her own complement of 900 emigrants placed considerable strain on the damaged steamer.

The White Star steamer Baltic also responded to the distress call but was only able to locate the position of the Republic by that evening. Passengers were transferred from the Florida to the Baltic and a riot was narrowly averted when first class passengers from the Republic took precedence boarding over the emigrants from the Florida.

The Republic did not have an adequate number of lifeboats (as did the Titanic) for the quota of passengers and crew. In this case they were lucky and vessels in general relied on the busy shipping lane to provide assistance in times such as this, therefore not requiring a sufficient number of lifeboats. The Titanic in 1912 brought this naive shortcoming into the public domain precipitating a change in legislation.

Despite application of collision mats (canvas treated with sealant to stem leaks in hulls), the Republic sank on the 24 January, the largest vessel to sink up until that time. All crew and passengers were safely evacuated and only the eight mentioned above died due to the impact of the collision.

Rumoured cargo[edit] wikipedia:

"There are many rumours that the Republic was carrying gold and/or other valuables when she went down. One rumour is that she was carrying gold worth $250,000[8] in American gold coins to be used as payroll for the US Navy's Great White Fleet.[6][9] Another theory that she was carrying money for the relief effort for the 1908 earthquake in Messina, Italy.[10] A third theory, put forward by Captain Martin Bayerle, is that she was carrying $3,000,000 in gold coins as part of a loan to the Imperial Russian government.[7] Captain Bayerle has recently released his book, The Tsar's Treasure,[11] which supports both the $3 million Russian gold shipment and an actual $800,000 US Government in-coin currency shipment, as well as other valuable cargoes. All of these values, of course, are in 1909 dollars when gold was $20 per ounce. Today, the coin values would bring the recovery to at least many hundreds of millions of dollars, and some experts have estimated that the recovery (with proper marketing of the recovered coins) could approach $5 billion or more, making the Republic salvage the largest treasure recovery of all time.[12]"

Discovered in 1981 by Martin Bayerle, she lies 50 miles south of Nantucket Island. To date none of the rumoured treasures have been recovered. Salvage attempts continue to this day.

The Waratah was not fitted with a wireless even though her predecessor the Geelong was. The case of the Republic highlighted the advantage of the wireless in times of distress at sea. If the Waratah had been fitted with wireless her position and the nature of the problem could have been conveyed to a land base. This might not have translated into a successful rescue as in the case of the Republic, but it would have answered vital questions and the lessons learned might have prevented a repeat of the tragedy.

My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!


Mole said...

1909 was a bad year ... !


Indeed! But the lesson that a double hull and water tight compartments did NOT make a vessel 'unsinkable' was not learned by 1912.

Unknown said...

I have my new book, The Tsar's Treasure, available on Amazon which details my research on Republic's cargoes, and the political intrigue which prevented the public inquiry into her loss. See:


thank you. I will certainly have a look at your link.