April 14, 2012

Waiting for the Carpathia at Pier 54

When the Carpathia arrived in New York at 9:30 pm on the cold and rainy evening of April 18, 1912, the ship first bypassed Pier 54, its home Cunard Line pier, and sailed up the river to Pier 59, the berth for the White Star Line, to drop off the empty lifeboats. Pier 59 is where the Titanic was supposed to have arrived. The Carpathia then sailed back to Pier 54 to let off the booked passengers and the survivors of the doomed ship. Tens of thousands of people gathered around Pier 54 to meet them and to hear the stories of the maritime disaster. A tug boat filled with photographers followed the ship to the pier, and the flashlight of cameras lit up the ship in the night sky to reveal that the decks were crammed with passengers.

The Carpathia had sailed three days in difficult conditions before arriving in New York Harbor, including an initial four-hour detour around the many icebergs in the North Atlantic Ocean. The ship carried 700 passengers and crew, and it had rescued 706 people from the icy waters. While still at sea, the ship's crew sent a list via wireless of the names of some of the survivors they had picked up on the lifeboats. By April 17, as the steamship barreled closer to the city, many relatives and friends of those aboard the Titanic either called or visited the White Star Line's booking offices on Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan to await word.

According to the front-page account in The New York Times of April 19, 1912, when the ship finally pulled in to dock near Fourteenth Street, two thousand people were on the pier and waiting in "almost complete silence." (1) Near the pier, 30,000 people had gathered, and 10,000 more lined the Battery. (2) In addition to friends and relatives, medical personnel and government officials were on the scene. The Carpathia passengers disembarked first, because the ship's captain realized that the scene would become tumultuous as soon as the Titanic survivors first appeared. That moment came. When a woman passenger with teary eyes and makeshift clothes descended a gangplank and stumbled away from the boat on the arms of an officer, the crowd started to wail with sounds of shrieks and sobs.

The world first learned the dramatic stories of the Titanic's final hours when its passengers disembarked from the Carpathia. From the Times report: "The Cunard liner Carpathia, not only a rescue ship, but a hospital ship as well, steamed slowly up the harbor last night and made fast to the Cunard pier 54, at Fourteenth Street and North River at 9:35 o'clock. She brought with her the first definite, authentic news which has been received since Monday of the sinking early on that morning of the giant White Star Liner Titanic, the biggest steamship afloat.

No one could tell the waiting reporters at Pier 54 the reasons why the ship sank or explain fully what happened. But they did say that when the ship sank, the band played on.


You can visit what's left of Pier 54. It's mainly a flat empty pier with cracked asphalt that stretches out into the Hudson River. At the entrance, a rusty arch bears the faded lettering of the Cunard Line. The pier is still used for special events, especially in the summertime. A little farther north, Pier 59 is currently the home of a large multi-use center that includes Chelsea Brewing Company, a driving range, and a photography studio.

The piers are close to the High Line, the Meatpacking District, Chelsea Market, two contemporary buildings by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, and many good restaurants. Have a look around.

View Pier 54 and Nearby Attractions in a larger map

1. See the "TimesMachine" feature of The New York Times for April 19, 1912 headlines.
2. Daniel Allen Butler, The Other Side of the Night: The Carpathia, the Californian, and the Night the Titanic Was Lost (Casemate, 2009).

On this website, read the companion post, One Hundred Years Ago in Bohemia: Greenwich Village 1912.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from April 13, 2012.

April 14, 2012

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