|Carefree and high-living, Washington Roebling II voyaged to Europe that spring of 1912 so he could test-drive the latest in Fiat motor cars.
His friend, the older Stephen Blackwell, took the same vacation to refresh his glum spirits after the death of his wife and a nervous breakdown.
Together, the two Trenton men booked a first-class passage back to America — on the Titanic.
And together they died, lost forever in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic when the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank.
More than 1,500 people died with them. The news could hardly be believed. The Titanic was "unsinkable," the ultimate in speed, size and comfort. Yet down it went — the grandest vessel of its day, and the greatest of disaster legends.
"What fascinates people is the sheer unbelievability of it," said Don Lynch, a Los Angeles-based writer who served as historical consultant for last year's movie "Titanic."
"It's the biggest ship in the world on its maiden voyage, carrying the cream of high society ... It can't happen, but it really did happen."
The Titanic also endlessly fascinates us because it represents a lost era, an era when society's privileged few carried themselves with a sense of noblesse oblige. Few people today can imagine coolly standing aside and obeying the command of "women and children first" for the lifeboats. Yet that was precisely what so many Titanic passengers did in the face of certain death, among them Roebling and Blackwell.
When word came of their death, people in Trenton acclaimed them as heroes and mourned with genuine sorrow.
"These families, especially the Roeblings, were the gods and goddesses of the city," said city historian Charles Webster. "These were the people making sure the city was changing and progressing, the people who would make Trenton a world-class city. And the city of Trenton truly believed in them."
Washington Roebling, 31, carried a fabled name as heir to the Roebling wire-rope fortune. His uncle and namesake was the intrepid engineer who built the Brooklyn Bridge, and his father, Charles, was an executive in the family business, John A. Roebling's Sons Co.
Blessed with great wealth by his relatives' deeds, the young man was "something of a playboy," Webster said, but he had a good mind and took a special interest in his family's investments.
Among these was the Mercer Automobile Works, where young Roebling became general manager and promoted a pioneering sports car, the Mercer Raceabout. Always on the hunt for car ideas, he took his voyage to Europe to test-drive Italy's new Fiat.
The melancholy, 45-year-old Blackwell had inherited great wealth from his father in Hopewell, a former state senator who owned a grocery.
Blackwell's beautiful young wife had died five years earlier of typhoid fever and, according to the Trenton Sunday Times-Advertiser, he suffered an illness that "dated from the very day of her death." Webster speculates it was a nervous collapse or depression.
When they set out for Europe, however, things were carefree. Roebling bought his Fiat in Italy and drove it on the winding roads through Italy and France. Blackwell accompanied him and, according to letters he wrote home, enjoyed himself the most since becoming a widower.
On April 10, the two friends booked passage on the White Star liner Titanic from Southampton, England, intending to reach New York a week later. To ship his Fiat back home, Roebling sent the car and his chauffeur, Frank Stanley, on another liner.
Roebling and Blackwell traveled in style. They mingled with the rich and the powerful — people with names like Guggenheim, Astor and Strauss. Their first-class tickets gave them access to a gymnasium, swimming pool, squash courts and a dining room catered by Parisian chefs. For dinner, they had roast duckling and oysters served under glittering crystal chandeliers.
As was the custom of that more chivalrous time, Roebling offered himself as an escort to one of the unmarried women aboard the ship, Caroline Bonnell, 31, of Youngstown, Ohio. He, like other gentlemen, was expected to escort his ward around the ship and protect her from danger if necessary. He would end up paying with his life for that honor.
The Titanic hit an iceberg on 11:30 the night of April 14, a night so still and calm that passengers thought the sea looked like glass. There was a low grinding noise. Chunks of ice broke off and toppled onto the deck. Still, most sleeping passengers were not roused from bed; there was no immediate alarm.
In the shipboard barbershop, however, haircutter Augustus Weikman — who lived in Palmyra, Burlington County — knew immediately the ship was in trouble.
Weikman ran to the gymnasium, where a group of men in evening dress were standing, watching a man socking a punching bag. The barber told them to get their life preservers on.
"What sense is there in that?" scoffed George Widener, a Philadelphia financier. "This boat isn't going to sink."
The Titanic had little more than two hours left. Seawater rushed to fill the watertight compartments that had been ripped by the iceberg. White Star stewards began knocking on cabin doors, asking everyone to don life preservers and get into the lifeboats. The lifeboats had space enough for half the souls on board.
Roebling and Blackwell joined the crowd that headed for the listing port deck. Methodically, they wakened friends they had made on the voyage. One of them was Edith Graham, a millionaire's wife, and her teen-aged daughter. Another was Miss Bonnell.
Now, in the chilly night, Roebling was accompanying the shivering Bonnell to a lifeboat. Roebling and Blackwell helped her through the confused crush of people, secured her a seat and stood back to let the ship's mates lower the boat, she later said.
Then Roebling shouted: "You will be back with us on the ship soon again!"
Perhaps Roebling really thought so. "Poor fellow," Caroline Bonnell recalled to the Trenton Evening Times. "He little thought that the great boat would soon go down and that he would go with it."
Edith Graham told a different story. From her lifeboat, she saw Roebling and a Londoner, Howard Case, standing at the railing, appearing unconcerned that they had missed their only chance to get off the ship.
"They shouted goodbye to us, and what do you think Mr. Case did then?" Graham later told an interviewer. "He just calmly lighted a cigarette and waved us goodbye with his hand. Mr. Roebling stood there, too — I can see him now.
"I am sure he knew that the ship would go to the bottom. But both just stood there."
Graham and Bonnell, who were later rescued from Lifeboat No. 8, were the only two survivors to report what had happened to Roebling and Blackwell that night.
Their final moments, however, are as obscure as the pitch-black water they disappeared into. Did they go back to their cabins to wait for their deaths? Make a last, desperate bid to jump off and swim to a lifeboat? No one will ever know.
Weikman, incredibly, survived — even though he later said he did not get into a lifeboat. Instead, he lept from the deck into the freezing water, grabbed hold of a floating bundle of deck chairs and was hauled aboard a collapsible life raft. He was one of 700 survivors.
In Trenton, news of the great tragedy was slow in coming. At first, the Trenton Evening Times reported Roebling and Blackwell had both escaped with their lives and that there were "no casualties" in the iceberg collision. Then, the awful extent of the tragedy became clear.
The bodies of the two Trenton men were never found, although there was a strange sequel to Blackwell's death. In 1979, a California woman named Doris Williams — who had long feared the sea and been fascinated with all things Titanic — went under hypnosis and announced that she was the reincarnation of Blackwell. However, many of her supposed "memories" about Blackwell's life, including his age and marital status, were wrong.
As for Roebling, his father never recovered from the shock of losing his only son. He died six years later, at age 69.
While Trenton society mourned, a way of life was coming to an end. World War I would come two years later; further ahead was the Great Depression, the Holocaust, atomic weapons. Never again would things seem as confident and orderly.
"Before the Titanic, all was quiet," wrote Walter Lord in "A Night to Remember," the standard history of the disaster. "Afterward, all was tumult."
First published Oct. 25, 1998
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
Read even more about the stories of Stephen BlackwelI and Washington Roebling II at the comprehensive Encyclopedia Titanica.
ALSO IN 1912
|1912: Going down with the ship|
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* Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross and a heroic nurse in the Civil War, died at 91. As young woman, she had taught at the first public school in Bordentown.
* In the first instance where recording devices were used to sting crooked politicians, six Atlantic City councilmen resigned after admitting they had taken bribes from an undercover detective. The detective, posing as a contractor who wanted to pave the Boardwalk with concrete, secretly recorded the grafters accepting $5,000 bribes with a Victrola phonograph.
* New Mexico and Arizona were admitted as the 47th and 48th states.
* Jim Thorpe became the first man ever to win both the heptathlon and the pentathlon at the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world,’’ the king of Sweden said in presenting him with his medal. "Thanks, king,’’ Thorpe replied.
|An ad for a Titanic voyage that never occurred -- scheduled for five days after the mighty ship met its tragic destiny.|