April 15, 2012, marks one hundred years since the sinking of the Titanic. This blog post continues our series about the ill fated ship and its connections to Mississippi. The series was written by Brandie Thomas of the MDAH Archives and Reference Services Division.

"Vicksburger Who Experienced Collision with Iceberg Discusses Sinking of Giant Titanic," Vicksburg Evening Post, April 17, 1912.

"Vicksburger Who Experienced Collision with Iceberg Discusses Sinking of Giant Titanic," Vicksburg Evening Post, April 17, 1912.

Two ships hit an iceberg in the frigid waters of the north Atlantic. One, the Anchor Liner Columbia, survives; but the other, the White Star Liner Titanic, sinks. The similarities between the Titanic and the Columbia are notable, but the key to their individual fates lies in their differences from each other.

Vicksburg resident E.M. Durham didn’t sail on the Titanic, but his experience aboard the Columbia was enough to get the attention of the Vicksburg Evening Post newspaper shortly after the Titanic disaster. During August of 1911, the Columbia struck an iceberg not far from where the Titanic wreck occurred.1 Read Durham’s account and our analysis below:

“Vicksburger Who Experienced Collision with Iceberg Discusses Sinking of Giant Titanic”

Vicksburg Evening Post

April 17, 1912

“The Titanic was proceeding at a reckless rate of speed. She ran into an iceberg while proceeding full speed ahead and going at a rate of 25 miles an hour or more. The impact doubtless jarred loose the rivets in all her plates, and her water tight compartments were rendered valueless, for the vessel leaked at every seam. I think the Titanic had an inadequate supply of life boats, for she was considered unsinkable, and was unsinkable as far as collisions with steamers concerned.”

Mr. E.M. Durham spoke to this effect this morning. Mr. Durham, together with his wife, went through an experience, similar but less harrowing than the one that happened to the Titanic. This happened last September when Mr. and Mrs. Durham were returning from abroad. They made the cross ocean westward trip aboard the 10,000-ton Columbia, which crashed into an iceberg almost in exactly the same neighborhood where the Titanic rammed an iceberg.

Mr. Durham spoke interestingly this morning about his experiences. “My wife and I know in a measure how to sympathize with the terrible ordeal the pasengers of the Titanic went through. The Columbia collided with an iceberg about 7 o’clock one evening. It was still light. The captain of our vessel knew he was in the vicinity of an iceberg or icebergs, and for some time had been proceeding forward very slowly, going only about five or six miles per hour. Suddenly the iceberg loomed dead ahead, and the screws were reversed, but too late to prevent the collision.

“The Columbia hit the berg with terrible force. We were seated at the dining table. The chairs, fastened to the floor, were snapped loose, and we were thrown to the floor. Everything on the table was knocked off.

“The passengers were greatly alarmed, and rushed to the deck. The officers, however, reassured us, and told us we were in no immediate danger.

“We proceeded forward. Our bow had been smashed in, and two of the forward water tight compartments were flooded, but the other compartments stood the shock and held out the water.

“It took us four days to reach New York. We stopped once in order that canvass [sic] might be stretched over the gaping wound in our bow.

“All of us were intensely anxious, and we could scarcely sleep at night for our fears. Fortunately the weather was calm, otherwise our boat might have gone to the bottom.

“Our captain did not, under the circumstances, think it necessary to wire for aid, though we were equipped with wireless.

“Had we been proceeding under full speed when we struck the iceberg we would certainly have gone down in a few seconds.

“The big boats, however, have but one thing in view and that is speed. They do not care if they crash into smaller vessels, thinking that the small vessels will be the ones to suffer.

“They take their chances with icebergs, and keep up full speed in spite of storms or fog.

“Our boat had more than enough life boats aboard to provide for all the passengers and crew. After our collission [sic] we figured on the matter and were reassured.

“The scenes that must have happened aboard the ill-fated Titanic are beyond conjecture. I have thought what would have occurred on the Columbia, with her scores of women and little children had she foundered. The Columbia had a passenger list of about 900 persons, and carried a crew of 500 men. She is a monster, though considered a small boat in these days.

“Though the captain was proceeding cautiously when the Columbia hit the berg, the officer was subsequently reduced in rank for permitting the accident.”

The Columbia event was similar to what happened to the Titanic, albeit with a very different outcome. Several key differences between the two ships contribute to the diverging fates of the two voyages.

Size

The Columbia was a 10,000-ton ship with 1,400 passengers and crew members onboard, according to Durham. The Titanic weighed in at 46,000 tons and carried 2,200 passengers and crew. At the time of both incidents, the British Board of Trade, the regulatory body for seafaring ships, mandated that ships over 10,000 tons carry at least sixteen lifeboats with capacity for 962 people. Since the Board of Trade only required sixteen boats, both ships met the legal requirements for lifesaving equipment, and the Titanic actually exceeded the requirement by including a total of twenty boats.

The Collision

The Titanic and the Columbia both hit an iceberg in the north Atlantic, but the damage sustained by each ship differed significantly. When the Columbia wreck occurred, the ship had slowed to five or six miles-per-hour because of fog. At this speed, the ship was creeping along, but according to Durham’s report, the impact was supposedly hard enough to knock passengers to the floor. The bow crumpled, but the ship remained afloat and was able to complete its trip to New York.

The Titanic, on the other hand, was traveling at twenty-two knots (about twenty-five mph) when lookouts first spotted a berg. The ship slowed slightly when engines were thrown into reverse but was still moving pretty swiftly as it side-swiped the berg and scraped alongside, breaching at least five watertight compartments beneath the waterline. The Titanic contained sixteen water-tight compartments, and was designed to remain afloat with any two compartments breached or, alternately, with the first four breached. With five compartments damaged, the rate of the flooding and the weight of the water pulled the ship down by the bow, causing water to flow over the tops of the bulkheads into the next compartments in much the same way that water moves in an ice tray. This process continued until the structural integrity of the ship failed and it sank.

Though no one knows for sure, there’s plenty of speculation regarding the sinking, including one theory that the Titanic would have survived had she rammed the iceberg head-on rather than trying to alter course to miss it. The reasoning behind that line of thinking is rooted in the ship’s watertight design. Supposedly, a head-on collision would likely have damaged only one or two of the forward bulkheads (similar to what happened to the Columbia), and the rate of the flooding would not have been as severe. Edward Wilding, one of the Titanic’s designers, testified during the British inquiry into the disaster that the Titanic would have even been able to make it into port after sustaining this type of damage.2 The Columbia did exactly this after stretching canvas over the damaged bow section.

The Aftermath

The Columbia struck an iceberg, sustained heavy damage, and survived. She completed her voyage with no loss of life and few injuries onboard, but there were still consequences to be faced. When the ship reached port and the smoke cleared, the Columbia’s captain was demoted according to Durham.

The Titanic struck an iceberg, sustained heavy damage, and foundered with a large loss of life. Only 700 of her passengers and crew completed the voyage to New York. Captain E.J. Smith, the Titanic’s commander, did not survive. Had he lived, Smith’s fate would likely have differed from that of the Columbia’s captain and not in a good way.

Smith was highly respected among his colleagues and very popular with passengers. In fact, many passengers planned their voyages so that they could sail on the ship he was assigned to at the time. Following his death on the Titanic, he was generally regarded as a hero by survivors and society at large. He was slated to retire following the Titanic’s maiden voyage, so had he survived, demotion probably wouldn’t have been an issue. But given that so many passengers, particularly women and children, perished, Smith’s fate might have paralleled that of J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line. Ismay was onboard the Titanic, and he survived by stepping into a lifeboat as it was being lowered into the water. As Ismay recounted, he happened to be standing next to the boat as it was being loaded. Once loading was complete, there were no more passengers in the area, so he stepped in. This was only the beginning of his ordeal. To say that his life was never the same is an understatement. The press vilified him for having survived and even blamed him for the entire incident. Society shunned him, and he spent his remaining years as a recluse in England.

Any similarities between the Columbia and the Titanic ended at the collision. E.M. Durham’s account provides a first person account of an iceberg collision and gives readers a partial conception of the experience for those aboard the Titanic. It also provides another Mississippi connection to the Titanic and an interesting hypothetical situation that could have produced a happier ending on the night of April 14-15, 1912. Whether the Titanic would have shared the Columbia’s fate (or vice versa) had circumstances been different is something that will likely never be proved or disproved. It’s one of the many healthy, ongoing debates that help fuel the perpetual interest in the Titanic.


1 Durham reports that the Columbia wreck occurred during September 1911, however, evidence supports that the wreck actually occurred in August of that year. The Brian T. Hill Institute for Ocean Technology in Canada maintains a webpage at http://www.icedata.ca/Pages/ShipCollisions/ShipCol_OnlineSearch.php displaying a list of collisions involving icebergs, and the date of the Columbia wreck is listed as August 1911. Additionally, an April 16, 1912, New York Times article (“Many Great Liners Paid Toll of the Sea”) about maritime disasters featured a small paragraph about the Columbia and referenced the wreck date as August 1911. The Durhams are listed on the Columbia’s manifest which says that it sailed from Glasgow on July 29, 1911. See Edwd M. and Emily Durham of Vicksburg (line 20 and 21, page 120), “S.S. Columbia sailing from Glasgow, July 29, 1911,” 1911 Arrivals, New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, Ancestry.com.

2 British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, Day 19, “Testimony of Edward Wilding,” Titanic Inquiry Project, http://www.titanicinquiry.org/BOTInq/BOTInq19Wilding01.php.