Thursday, September 8, 2011

The 1913 RMS Titanic Memorial Lighthouse -- South Street Seaport

No longer a working lighthouse and no longer on its lofty perch, the Titanic Memorial is largely overlooked by tourists and New Yorkers alike -- photo by Alice Lum
As the devastating news of the sinking of the RMS Titanic flashed across the news wires on April 15, 1912 the entire world was thrust into shock and mourning.  But the grief was perhaps especially felt in New York City.

On Thursday, April 18, instead of the proud Titanic, it was the Carpathia that steamed into New York harbor.  Aboard were the dazed survivors.  As the city scurried to provide for them, citizens were stunned to hear of the deaths of prominent New Yorkers like Isadore Strauss, co-owner of Macy’s, and his wife Ida; John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim.

Soon memorial services were held across the city at sites like Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Chapel and the Seamen’s Friend Society.  Donations for survivors’ relief poured in.

But these passing gestures were not enough.

Within a week the Seamen’s Benefit Society announced its idea of a permanent memorial in the form of a lighthouse on their new Seamen’s Institute at the corner of Coenties Slip and South Street.  It would be a traditional lighthouse with a green, fixed lantern to shine over the harbor where the Titanic was intended to arrive. Surmounting it, a time-ball was proposed that would fall precisely at noon daily.

The announcement said “It will be given in memory of the engineers who sent their stokers up while they went to certain death; the members of the heroic band who played while the water crept up to their instruments, and of the officers and crew who put duty ahead of personal safety. It will be given in memory of those in the steerage who perished without ever realizing their hopes of the new land, the America of endless possibilities.

“It will be given in memory of all the heroic deeds by first and second cabin passengers. In short, it will be a monument to every person, without regard to rank, race, creed, or color, whose life went down when the giant vessel slipped beneath the waves.”

A loosely-formed committee composed entirely of women, with the exception of Dr. George F. Kunz, President of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, came together to form the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse Fund.  Among the well-known socialites were Mrs. Jacob H. Schiff, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mrs. Frederick Vanderbilt, Mrs. William D. Sloane and Mrs. J. Borden Harriman.  Mrs. Schiff opened her purse as the first subscriber to the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse Fund with a $500 donation towards the estimated $10,000 cost.

Not everyone was sold on the lighthouse idea. Mayor Gaynor convened a meeting in his office on May 14 of notable citizens--none of whom were women. Bishop David H. Greer said it “should be a thing of beauty” similar to the General Sherman statue at Central Park.  Someone else recommended a memorial within the Park.  While one person agreed with the lighthouse idea, he felt it should be “built at some perilous point on the coast, to be illuminated by a powerful searchlight, and with a great fog horn that could be heard for miles.”

Joseph H. Choate suggested that a committee of thirty men be formed to take up the project. President Taft sent his wishes to be included on the committee.  Two weeks later that committee met in a heated debate over the memorial. One member made no fewer than 18 speeches in an attempt to sway the committee. Bishop Greer was against the lighthouse, saying the memorial should be “artistic rather than utilitarian.”

Henry Clews arrived with his own rough sketch of the monument that he personally designed. It depicted the large ocean liner and an equally large iceberg. Edmund L. Baylies and Frank Damrosch pushed for the lighthouse “far out in the bay.”  Henry R. Towns chimed in insisting that “it should be the largest lighthouse in the world, one which might be seen from the lower bay for fifty or seventy five miles,” as recapped in The New York Times.

In the end the original idea offered by the Seamen’s Benefit Society won out.

Donations flowed in and by June $7,000 had been received. In the meantime the new 12-story Seamen’s Church Institute building was rising in Jeanette Park. Within the year it would be completed along with the memorial lighthouse atop it.

On the first anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the lighthouse was dedicated. The US Government gave permission for the green light rather than the typical red. The Nautical Gazette explained “as this color is not used by any lighthouse on the coast, the memorial-tower lantern will be a particularly distinctive one.” The beacon could be seen as far as Sandy Hook, New Jersey, 40 miles away.

High above South Street was the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse with its gilded time-ball -- NYPL Collection
Atop the lighthouse was the gilded time ball. A mechanism connected the Western Union offices by a wire that ran through the subway tunnels. At five minutes before noon each day a signal was received and the ball rose to the top of its rod. Precisely at twelve another signal triggered the ball to drop. The telegraph company provided the service for $72 per year providing that the instrument was kept in working order.

The Times remarked that “the man in the street will adjust his watch, the sailor in the harbor will set his chronometer, and the binoculars at Sandy Hook will be trained on the glinting flash. And how many in the throng will remember, as they look, that once on a midsummer night a boat called the Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea carrying her freight of human cargo with her?”

The memorial lighthouse as seen from the roof -- postcard from author's collection
The lighthouse stood atop the Seamen’s Church Institute building, shining its green light and dropping its noontime ball for decades. Then in July of 1968 the Seamen’s Church Institute relocated to its new site at 15 State Street.  The old building was slated for demolition.

The Kaiser-Nelson Steel and Salvage Corporation, which had contracted for the salvage, donated the historic lighthouse to the South Street Seaport Museum. The museum constructed a park at Fulton and Water Streets with a $200,000 donation from the Exxon Corporation and, in May 1976 the lighthouse was erected there.

Photo by Alice Lum
The 60-foot lighthouse looks somewhat out of place today. Its green lantern is dark and the time-ball no longer falls at noon. But tourists and New Yorkers alike pause occasionally to read the bronze plaque there and realize its original purpose.  For, as The Lookout magazine said in 1913, “in a busy, careless city the average person so soon forgets.”


  1. thanks for the compliment. Come to New York -- we'll show you around!