It was a brief, but greatly anticipated, message received in Winnipeg: “Mother and three girls are well, Charlie and father missing — signed Ethel Fortune.”
Unfortunately, the only two males of the Fortune family were not “missing.” Ethel’s father, Mark, and her 19-year-old brother, Charles, went down with the Titanic, the ship inaccurately described at the time as “unsinkable.”
One hundred years after the maritime tragedy, in which 1,517 passengers and crew perished, the story of the Titanic’s sinking continues to fascinate. Over the years, the ill-fated vessel has spawned numerous books — six more books are being released this year — its fair-share of movies, including the multi-million dollar Titanic (1997), by Canadian filmmaker James Cameron. The first dramatic moving picture about the sinking was Saved From the Titanic, released by the Eclair Moving Picture Co. on May 14, 1912, exactly one month to the day after the ship struck an iceberg. As well, there have been at least a couple of television shows, including the four-part serial now being aired on CKND.
The fascination with the Titanic is that the telling of its brief history contains the epic ingredients of a so-called “unsinkable” luxury liner doomed on its maiden voyage through a chance encounter with an iceberg, passengers of wealth and fame, men stoically accepting their fate while watching wives, daughters, sisters and lovers drift away in lifeboats that were too few in number to accommodate everyone aboard, cowardice in the face of adversity, and class conflict among passengers with the primarily poor sacrificed to the sea.
Six Winnipeggers were among those that drowned: Mark and Charles Fortune, Thompson Beattie, John Hugo Ross, and George Edward Graham, a buyer for the Eaton’s Company in Winnipeg. Another Titanic victim, John James Borebank, was a real estate developer who had resided in Winnipeg, but at the time was living in Toronto. Borebank’s family owned land in what later became River Heights.
Ross, 37, a prosperous real estate man, and Beattie, 36, who was involved in real estate with then mayor Richard Waugh, along with former Winnipegger, James McCaffry, 53 — who also perished — were known as the “Three Musketeers,” since the bachelors travelled the globe together whenever they could. In 1912, they had travelled for several months in Europe and up the Nile River in Egypt.
Ross was seasick in bed when the ship hit the iceberg. Beattie came to warn him to get dressed. According to an article in the April 26, 1912, Manitoba Free Press, Beattie was heard to remark before the boat containing the Fortune women departed, “Things look pretty bad,” and then left to go below to his friends.
The most wealthy among the victims from Winnipeg was 65-year-old Mark Fortune, who had purchased tracts of land along the Assiniboine River in the 1870s along what would become Portage Avenue. Ross was returning home to Winnipeg aboard the Titanic with his wife Mary, 60, his con Charles and daughters Alice, Mabel and Ethel. They were booked in the first-class cabins: C-23, 25 and 27.
After the ship hit the iceberg in the evening of April 14, the Fortunes found their way to the deck with the lifeboats. Father and son watched as the four Fortune women boarded the sixth lifeboat.
“Don’t worry, mother,” the father said to his wife. “We’ll go on the next boat.”
One of the girls shouted out as the boat drifted away in the darkness, “Charles, please take care of your father!”
It was the last time the women saw father and son alive.
Eva Hart, who was immigrating to Winnipeg with her mother and father, later recalled that she was asleep when the lookouts spotted the iceberg and a futile attempt was made to avoid it. At 11:40 p.m., only a slight bump was felt by the passengers when the iceberg struck the ship. Benjamin Hart scooped up his seven-year-old daughter, who cried out for her teddy bear, but he only had one thought in mind — save his family. Benjamin, his wife Esther and little Eva found seats in Lifeboat 14, but he gave up his seat for a woman. He kissed his wife and child, telling them not to worry and stepped from the lifeboat to the deck of the Titanic.
“Be a good girl,” he told Eva. “Hold mommy’s hand.”
Eva never saw her father again. From that moment until her death in 1996, she never owned another teddy bear.
While adrift on the lifeboat and awaiting rescue by the Carpathian, then sailing at full-steam toward the scene of the disaster, the remaining members of the Fortune family last heard the ship’s band playing, Nearer my God to Thee. “They never tried to get away,” Mary Fortune later recalled. “They just stood an played while the boats were lowered away, and the stewart walked around whistling and caring for the lady passengers, They were very brave.”
Perhaps one of the more tragic figures aboard the Titanic that fateful day was Albert Adrian “Bert” Dick, who was born in Winnipeg in 1880, but was a Calgary businessman when the ship sank. Relating the events of the sinking of the ship in a New York hotel room, Dick said he and his wife Vera were reading in their cabin — they were on their belated honeymoon — when they felt the ship shudder. They went on deck to investigate. Everyone was asking what had happened, although none appeared to be alarmed, because they “had absolute confidence in the unsinkable properties of the ship.”
While the lifeboats were being loaded, Dick said an officer kept the men back, shouting, “I’ll shoot you if you don’t stand back!” As his wife was being pulled into the sixth boat, Dick said he was holding and kissing her goodbye when he was also shoved into the boat by an officer and the boat was lowered into the water. Dick and his wife were among the 710 survivors rescued by the Carpathian.
Upon their return to Calgary, Dick was ostracized as one of the few male survivors of the Titanic. False rumours spread that he had dressed up as a woman to escape the sinking ship. Dick’s hotel business suffered as a result of the gossip, so he sold out, but Dick continued to make money in real estate. Until he died in 1970, the gossip tainting Dick’s last moments aboard the Titanic haunted him.
During the 80th anniversary of the sinking, Winnipeg writer Martin Zellig said that the Titanic story has fascinated so many for so long because it is the highest drama about human beings at their best and worst. Twenty years later, his explanation still holds true.