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Newsman was no fan of the need for speed

Published April 21. 2012 09:01AM

The week after the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, a Tamaqua Courier writer sensed that the story would not only be remembered as a tragic news event, but that we would learn from the lessons the tragedy taught us that night

"Before the Titanic disaster drops out of the bulletin boards and the headlines, let us hope that it will have made some little impression on the American temperament," the writer stated. "The lessons to be learned relate not merely to life boats and wireless (communication) and steamship lanes."

The Tamaqua writer was critical of those involved in the business of transportation, including the captain of the Titanic, who seemed obsessed with setting a speed record during the fatal trip.

"Isolated tragedies of speed are being constantly played on our railroads and highways, the aggregate result of which creates far more sorrow than the titanic disaster," he wrote 10 days after the ship went down in the Atlantic.

Not only did the captain of the Titanic call for more engine power to move the mighty luxury liner ahead of schedule but he ignored an obvious danger sign that night. Heavy fog made for poor visibility, shielding the ship's lookouts from spotting the iceberg until it was too late to avoid a collision.

The Courier writer offered his flowing assessment.

"You can never obliterate the common sense fact that no human power can wholly assure safety when a ship is driving ahead 15 or 20 miles into darkness, where no human eye can tell what lies just behind the gray wall of dripping mist," he said in a column on April 25. "The risk could be much reduced if it was permissible to run at a very slow speed through fog. but as any steamship company that adopted that practice would find that its passengers would rather gain a half day than be safe, such precautions are not likely to be adopted."

The writer said a friend of his who had crossed the ocean the year before told about one irate passenger on the trip who complained bitterly about the ship line because of a slight delay. After missing his train when they landed in port, he promised never to use that ship carrier again.

"Possibly he went by the Titanic, and is now located in one of the ample offices of Davy Jones' Locker," the writer said sarcastically.

This Davy Jones' Locker phrase was an idiom for the bottom of the sea and the term is used to describe the state of death among drowned sailors.

The writer also used a personal illustration in relating how the same problem of speed and haste could be found right at home, on our home streets. He recalled riding in his friend's automobile "in a conservative way" just a few months earlier.

"At no time did he run the machine over 20 miles an hour," he said. "Much of our time he was not running over 15. we all enjoyed the country sights and jolly conversation."

He also related it to another friend who, after hearing the story, stated that "it would make me crazy to go with him."

Soon after the man uttered that statement, the Courier writer saw him driving recklessly through Tamaqua.

"Whenever he passed groups of little children standing close to the road, any one of whom might heedlessly run in front of his machine, he never slowed down a particle," the writer noted.

For shipping companies, the writer said the biggest factor in striving for more speed was the profit margin.

"As shipping increases, harbors grow small and the steersman who can slip out ahead of a competitor and only scrape off some paint is viewed with admiration," he said. "Human hunger for money makes many accidents. The lake freighter that can get in one more trip before ice forms provides an extra dividend for the owner."

He said too often, this can only lead to "a final and silent tragedy," leaving the vessel on "the cruel rocks of a treacherous coast."

One thing that did impress the Tamaqua writer in the Titanic disaster was the sacrifice of so many of the men who went down with the ship after giving up their seats to the women and children.

"How many of us would have the manliness to do it?" he asked in his opinion titled "Women First."

He said the display of self-sacrifice as the ship was sinking reminded him of the medieval knights rode through the country rescuing damsels in distress during the middle ages.

"Few men today are willing to undergo suffering to the extent of standing in a street or railroad train, to provide some women with a seat," he said.

In the case of a life and death situation aboard Titanic, however, he felt that those able-bodied men who took seats in the lifeboats might find it hard to live with the fact that they had survived while women and children had gone down with the ship that night.

"The history of calamity has recorded many an occasion where men, like wolves, practically pushed and jostled for safety," he said. "To take life on those terms would be to accept a stain that to a sensitive man, would be a living death."

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