April 16, 2015

Montana's Ties to the Titanic

Zoe Ann Stoltz, Reference Historian

My first response to the recent question, "Were there any people from Montana on the Titanic?" was not historical.  Rather, the only thing that came to mind was the very contemporary link with Montana resident Al Giddings.  Mr. Giddings participated in the 1991 joint Russian-Canadian-American expedition to the wreck and later played an integral role in the production and underwater filming for the blockbuster 1997 movie, Titanic.

Within moments of hitting the microfilm machine, however, I became obsessed with the stories of the men and women who both perished as well as survived the sinking.  Not only were there 17 or more (depending on the source) passengers of the RMS Titanic who planned to make Montana their final destination, there were also numerous personal and professional Montana connections.  The aspirations and make-up of these individuals—miners, emigrants, carpenters, homesteaders, and millionaires—represent the story of 1912 Montana.

Several third and second class passengers were headed for Butte and other Montana opportunities.  These included at least four railroad workers who had worked in Butte the previous fall, but returned to their homes in Bulgaria for the winter.  Menko Angeloff, Hristo Danchoff, Stanio Georfieff, and Ivan Staneff, all steerage tickets, were well known by Butte's Bulgarian community.  According to the Anaconda Standard, Staneff was "considered a leader among his countrymen."  Frederick Pengelly, a 19-year-old miner, boarded the Titanic with 23-year-old blacksmith William Ware, both from Cornwall, England.  The young men listed Butte as their final destination with hopes of earning employment in the booming mining town.  Carpenter William Gilbert, on the other hand, had lived in the Butte area for 20 years.  The Butte Miner reported he was returning from a trip to Cornwall to visit his mother.  Sadly, just ten days before the Titanic disaster, his siblings had received a letter explaining that he missed boarding the California, his initial ticket, so he was reassigned to the Titanic.  These men's dreams died with them the night the Titanic sank.

Four other men, all steerage passengers from Croatia, also listed Montana as their destination.  Three married brothers, or perhaps cousins, Bartol, Ivan, and Liudevit Cor, ages 35, 27, and 19, respectively, hoped to end their travels in Great Falls.  Jovan Dimic, age 42, was traveling to Red Lodge.  Their stories wait to be discovered.  None of these men were among the survivors.  Another passenger, Edward Larsson-Rondberg, was heading home to Missoula after a visit to Sweden.  He had saved enough money from cooking at the Atlantic Hotel and Restaurant on North Higgins to bring his childhood sweetheart, Berta Nilsson, to Montana.  The Butte Miner described how Berta survived after boarding Lifeboat D, the final boat to be lowered from the steamer, just 15 minutes before it sank to the ocean floor.  Edward was never seen again.
Lifeboat D, with Berta Nilsson aboard, just prior to rescue by the Carpathia
(source: National Archives–Northeast Region, New York City, RG 21, Records of District Courts of the United States).
Deer Lodge resident, Imanita Parrish Shelley, and her mother, Lutie Parrish, were seasoned travelers returning to the States from England.  Following the collision with the iceberg, the mother and daughter boarded Lifeboat 12, one of the few lifeboats to later take on additional survivors.  These included  approximately 16 men found clinging to the sinking collapsible Lifeboat B just before dawn.  The ladies arrived in Deer Lodge ten days after the sinking.  Mrs. Shelley would later send an affidavit to the U.S. Senate inquiry describing her experiences in detail.

Gilliam and Anna De Messemaeker, recently married in Belgium, were on their way to Gilliam's log home and homestead outside Tampico, Montana.  Anna was lifted into Lifeboat 13, filled with over 65 second- and third-class women and children.  Gilliam, not allowed to join his wife, began assisting with the next boat, number 15.  Believing Gilliam to be a crew member, an officer ordered him to take up oars.  The couple was reunited aboard rescue boat Carpathia.  According to the Glasgow Valley County News, they arrived in Valley County on April 27th.  The newspaper printed a detailed interview of the couple's frightening experience less than a week after their return home.

In addition to the 17 souls described above, the Titanic carried many others with ties to Montana.   These included first-class passengers Mr. and Mrs. Walter Clark, both born in Montana and with solid ties to Butte.  Clark, the nephew of Copper King and Montana Senator William Clark, assisted his wife into Lifeboat 4, which also carried several first-class passengers and their staff, including the young Mrs. Astor, her maid, and nurse.  Young Mr. Clark was last seen with Mr. Astor helping others onto the remaining lifeboats.  By April 25, Virginia Clark had returned to their Los Angeles home to grieve.

Investigating Montana's ties to the Titanic taught me that Mr. Giddings was not the first Montanan to look upon the notorious ship.  Cooks, homesteaders, and laborers, all boarded the Titanic with hopes of creating a new life upon their arrival in the booming young State of Montana.  The sinking ended those hopes and dreams.  However, their stories reflect those of thousands of people heading to Montana in 1912.

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