The infamous sinking of the Titanic remains a story that has fascinated people for more than a century.
By RIMSIE MCCONIGA
The infamous sinking of the Titanic remains a story that has fascinated people for more than a century. Throughout the years, scores of exhibits, books, movies, news articles, poetry and documentaries have told the story of the tragic sinking and have kept generation after generation enthralled with the events that took place on April 15, 1912.
Now, Park University just across the river in Parkville, Missouri will host an exhibit through May 31 which will not only display items related to the ship, it also will highlight a story of a more personal nature: two of the university’s alumni, along with their 10-month-old child survived the ship’s sinking off the coast of Newfoundland on April 15, 1912.
The family’s story resurfaced in 2012 with the release of the book, “A Rare Titanic Family: The Caldwells’ Story of Survival,” written by Albert Caldwell’s great-niece, Julie Hedgepeth Williams, Ph.D., who wrote the book using information supplied by Park University archivist Carolyn Elwess. She also incorporated personal memories of her great-uncle and research from Albert’s grandson, Charles Caldwell, Ph.D., among other relatives.
“The subject of the Park University Fishburn Archives Titanic exhibit is a departure from the usual attention given to the rich and famous people who died in the tragedy or who, like Molly Brown, survived. It is a story of two ordinary Second-Class passengers who just happened to be Park alumni,” says Carolyn. “Albert and Sylvia Caldwell, both 1909 graduates, were returning from Siam (now Thailand) where they had been serving as missionaries under the auspices of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. With them was their 10-month-old-son, Alden. They were one of the few families to survive intact — most husbands bravely went down with the ship.” Carolyn urges people to come to the exhibit to find out how Albert managed to get off the ship.
Carolyn says the couple’s story is important for two reasons: besides their dramatic survival as a family, Albert was one of only 14 male survivors out of the 168 male Second-Class passengers on the ship.
Albert and Sylvia decided to apply for positions with the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions as their college graduation approached. They were both accepted and soon after graduation were married. In Siam, Albert taught English at Bangkok Christian High School and Sylvia also worked with him.
When Sylvia’s health was affected by the hot climate, and possibly weakened more by the birth of their son, they decided to return home.
“Sylvia was plagued by seasickness on the small steamers that pitched and rolled during the first leg of their journey through the Suez Canal and on to Italy,” says Carolyn. “By the time they reached London she had suffered so much that Albert worked hard to secure Second-Class passage on the huge Titanic, believing it would be much more stable – and he succeeded.”
Little did they know that boarding this ship would change their lives. They were sound asleep in their cabin on that Sunday evening. At about 11:30 p.m. they were jolted awake when the ship collided with the massive iceberg.
Shortly after, a crew member pounded on their cabin door and told them to dress quickly, put their lifejackets on and get up on deck.
“They wrapped Alden in a blanket and did as ordered, leaving all their valuables behind,” says Carolyn. “At one point the Caldwells were among a group of people directed to a lower deck and forgotten. Eventually found, they were ushered up to the starboard boat deck just as the last lifeboats were being filled. Albert supplied the story of their survival to the Park College alumni magazine in a letter dated April 30, 1912.”
Carolyn says that during April for many years, reporters sought out the Caldwells because of their remarkable story of survival. “They were one of the few families to have survived intact. In 1955, Sylvia was interviewed by Walter Lord, author of the extremely well researched book, ‘A Night to Remember.’ She is quoted in that book as the woman who was told, upon asking about the safety of the ship, ‘God himself could not sink this ship.’”
Carolyn says the Titanic tale is one of many fascinating stories preserved in the Fishburn Archives, at Park University. “Our Titanic story attracted more attention than any other and was the one tale that brought Park’s Archives the most publicity I have witnessed before or since, and I have been associated with the Archives for 24 years. The explosion of curiosity was due almost entirely to the 1997 movie, ‘Titanic.’ Thinking that we may get some publicity because of the popularity of the movie, Park’s public relations staff sent out an article I had written about the Caldwells and mentioned a small Titanic exhibit I had constructed in our library. I was surprised and overwhelmed by the intensity of interest about Park and the Caldwells that ensued. The frenzy among movie fans and also among Titanic scholars to see and learn anything about the disaster, especially anything related to the Kansas City area, was incredible. I was inundated with queries from television, radio and newspaper reporters, from phone calls and from e-mails before I could blink.”
Albert Caldwell’s letter to the Park College alumni magazine
April 30, 1912
“As the alumni have seen all the accounts in the papers, I will only give a few personal incidents. I owe my life to my baby boy or rather to God who used him to save me.
“The fact that I had him in my arms gave me the precedence to take a vacant place in the lifeboat after the women and children were loaded. We were in boat number 13 (not unlucky this time as we were among the first to reach the Carpathia).
‘The most exciting and perilous moment we had was at the time the lifeboat was being lowered. We thought that at any moment we would all be spilled out.
“Boat number 15 came down on top of us while we were trying to loose the block and tackle and we thought we would be crushed. (This incident really occurred and was featured in the 1997 film, Titanic). There was no officer in our boat, which numbered about 50 women and 15 men, so we elected a stoker to be in command of the boat.
“We were about a half mile from the Titanic when she sank (at approximately 2:20 a.m. on April 15) and I will never forget the shrieks of those people in the water.
“We supposed at the time there were 40 or 50, never dreaming that 1,600 people would lose their lives that night. I attribute the wreck to nothing but carelessness.
“We all thought the boat non-sinkable and I believe that the poor fellows who were lost had hope to the end that she would not sink for many hours.
“I think that the real heroes were the officers who stayed at their posts knowing the boat would sink and the sailors who helped others into the boats and let them down one by one, never thinking of taking a place themselves which they could so easily have done and yet realizing all the time that their only means of escape was the lifeboats which were leaving without them.
“We are all well with the exception that Mrs. Caldwell is still suffering from the nervous shock.”
The Titanic special exhibit is in Park University’s Frances Fishburn Archives and Special Collections space through May 31.
For more information contact Brad Biles at 816-584-6888.