A Titanic Connection

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Shortly after midnight on April 15, 1912, more than 1,500 passengers and crew on the R.M.S. Titanic perished as the ship sank 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. In Cedar Rapids, attention focused on the Douglas family.

George Douglas' brother and sister-in-law, Walter and Mahala Douglas, had been on a three-month trip to Europe after spending Christmas at Brucemore with family. The couple was celebrating Walter's retirement and purchasing furnishings for their home in Walden, on Lake Minnetonka near Minneapolis. They bought first-class tickets for themselves and Mahala's French maid, Berthe Leroy, to return home aboard the Titanic in time to celebrate Walter's birthday with family.

Walter and Mahala had just returned to their suite on the Titanic from the first-class dining room when they heard the engines stop. Mahala asked Walter to inquire about the reason and put on her fur coat and heavy boots to wait in the hallway.

Seeing no officers and receiving no orders, she became concerned and went to her cabin for a life preserver. Walter returned and teased her about the preserver but agreed they should go on deck together. They watched as the distress rockets shot high into the air and burst into a shower of light.

Passengers on deck remained calm as they boarded the lifeboats. Eventually, they decided Mahala should get into one of the boats. Climbing aboard, she requested that Walter join her.

He replied, "No; I must be a gentleman," and turned away to join a group of men waiting for a later boat. Walter was last seen standing on the deck of the Titanic wearing his tuxedo. Mahala recalled him helping women and children into the final lifeboats.

Initial reports were sparse and contradictory. The limits of wireless communication and the isolation of the disaster limited accurate information. When word of the accident reached Cedar Rapids, the magnitude of the disaster and the condition of either Walter or Mahala was unknown. Diaries in Brucemore's archives document the reaction of the Douglas family awaiting news in Cedar Rapids.

Irene's entry on April 15 hints at the confusion surrounding the incident:

The news of Titanic's disaster came at noon while we were at luncheon - Did not seem serious until evening about 7:30 - spent the evening at the [Cedar Rapids] Republican [newspaper] office.

Having received no news, George and Irene left Cedar Rapids on April 16 to meet the ship carrying Titanic survivors in New York.

On April 17, The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette reported:

Up to 1 o'clock today no definite news had been received in Cedar Rapids concerning the fate of Mr. Walter D. Douglas.... The wireless telegraph companies having great trouble in effecting communication with the Carpathia.... It appears that a considerable number of the first and second cabin passengers, especially the men, must have perished, but it is still hoped that Mr. Douglas was among the ones rescued. Mrs. Douglas is on the Carpathia, but whether Mr. Douglas went down with the boat, as did many others of the male passengers, remains to be determined.

In New York on April 18, thousands of people waited in the rain as the ship bearing the 713 survivors slowly approached the dock. Irene's entry for that date reflected the answer to the question the family and their community had been asking, "Carpathia landed 7 in the eve. Walter not with Mahala."

On April 23, eight days after the sinking, the Douglas family received word that Walter's body had been recovered by the cable ship MacKay Bennett and identified by his shirt and cigarette case, both monogrammed "WDD." The ship's crew recorded the following information:

  • No. 62 - MALE - Estimated age, 55 - Hair grey
  • Clothing - Evening dress, with "W.D.D." on shirt.
  • Effects - Gold watch; chain; gold cigarette case "W.D.D."; five gold studs; wedding ring on finger engraved "May 19th '84"; pocket letter case with $551.00 and one pound; 5 note cards.
  • First Class
  • Name - Walter D. Douglas, Minneapolis

Walter's remains were taken first to his home in Minneapolis, then, via a special train, to Cedar Rapids for entombment in the Douglas family vault at Oak Hill Cemetery.

Mahala returned to her home on Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota. An advocate of arts and culture, she turned her estate into a showplace for extravagant gardens and furnishings collected from around the world. Mahala supported many local groups and charities, including a donation in Walter's name to Coe College.

A talented and enthusiastic writer, Mahala Douglas published a collection of stories and poems in 1932. One copy, inscribed to George and Irene, is in the Brucemore archives. The last poem in the book is a haunting account of the Titanic disaster.

Titanic

The sea velvet smooth, blue-black,
The sky set thick with stars unbelievably brilliant.
The horizon a clean-cut circle.
The air motionless, cold - cold as death.
Boundless space.
A small boat waiting, waiting in this vast stillness,
Waiting heart-breakingly.
In the offing a vast ship, light streaming from her portholes.

Her prow on an incline.
Darkness comes to her suddenly.
The huge black hulk stands out in silhouette against the star-lit sky.

Silently the prow sinks deeper,
As if some Titan's hand,
Inexorable as Fate,
Were drawing the great ship down to her death.

Slowly, slowly, with hardly a ripple
Of that velvet sea,
She sinks out of sight.

Then that vast emptiness
Was suddenly rent
With a terrifying sound.

It rose like a column of heavy smoke.
It was so strong, so imploring, so insistent
One thought it would even reach
The throne of grace on high.

Slowly it lost its force,
Thinned to a tiny wisp of sound,
Then to a pitiful whisper....
Silence.

Salvaging the Titanic

In 1996, R.M.S Titanic Inc., the company that owns salvage rights to the doomed vessel, attempted to raise a section of the ship's structure from the ocean floor.

As it fell back into the deep, it landed upright in the muddy seabed, affording the crew their first look at the side that had landed face down 84 years earlier.

Historians originally identified the piece as the wall of a first-class berth unoccupied on the voyage. With their new perspective, they discovered their earlier identification had been incorrect. The large piece had actually been part of berth C-86 occupied by Walter and Mahala Douglas.

In August 1998, Dateline NBC and the Discovery Channel aired a primetime special featuring the story of the successful salvage of this large section of the Titanic. Central to the hour-long segment was an interview at Brucemore with Borden Stevens, grandniece of Walter and Mahala.

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