By Cindy Hadish
“The boat was so luxurious, so steady, so immense, and such a marvel of mechanism, that one could not believe he was on a boat — and there the danger lay.” — Mahala Douglas
A century after the tragic end to the “unsinkable” ship’s voyage, stories from the Titanic continue to capture the imagination of people around the globe.
The luxury liner’s April 1912 sinking in the Atlantic Ocean might seem a world away to most Iowans, but connections to the state were many, says April Kamp-Whittaker, director of learning and museum projects at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids
“The Titanic’s Unsinkable Stories: 100 Years Later,” a new exhibit at Brucemore, explores those Iowa links to the epic disaster.
“We built the exhibit around their stories,” Kamp-Whittaker says of the 36 Titanic passengers profiled in the display.
Foremost among those, and the impetus behind the exhibit, were Brucemore patriarch George Douglas’s brother, Walter, and his wife, Mahala.
George and Irene Douglas lived at the estate from 1906 to 1937 with daughters, Margaret and Ellen, and Barbara, who was born while the family lived at Brucemore.
Mahala, a graduate of Coe College in Cedar Rapids, and husband Walter Douglas were touring Europe to buy furniture for Walden, their new home in Deephaven, Minn.
The couple, along with Mahala’s French maid, Berthe Leroy, boarded the Titanic for the voyage back to the United States.
According to archives kept at Brucemore, Walter and Mahala had returned to their suite from the first-class dining room when they heard the engines stop.
“Mahala asked Walter to inquire about the reason while she put on her fur coat and heavy boots to wait in the hallway. Seeing no officers and receiving no orders, she became concerned and returned to her cabin for a life preserver. Walter returned and teased her about the preserver, but agreed to go on deck together.”
The account notes that the two watched as distress rockets shot into the air, bursting into a shower of light.
“Eventually, they decided Mahala should get into one of the lifeboats. 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.”
Leroy’s account was also included.
“When the ship began to list, Berthe became concerned. She hurried from her cabin wearing a dressing gown and a single slipper. She struggled through dark corridors toward the upper decks. Berthe hoped she would see the Douglases, but found herself boarding one of the last lifeboats without them.”
Mahala and her maid survived. Walter Douglas did not.
Newspaper accounts of the disaster will be prominent in the exhibit, supported with materials from Brucemore’s archives.
Both Irene and Margaret Douglas included entries about the frantic search for information in their journals, Kamp-Whittaker says.
Clothing from the era — boots, a petticoat and blouse — will be displayed in the exhibit and more clothes can be seen on tours of the Brucemore mansion during the run of the exhibit.
There is a cost for the mansion tours. The exhibit, in the Brucemore Visitors Center, is free.
Rachel Dee, a Mount Mercy University student who interned at Brucemore, helped uncover names of some of those Iowa connections through research in newspaper and journal articles, Kamp-Whittaker says. Photos and information for the exhibit came from across the world.
One couple, Sylvia and Albert Caldwell, were Siam missionaries from Illinois who often visited fellow missionaries, Sam and Bess Conybeare, in Cedar Rapids.
The Conybeares play a prominent role in a new book about the disaster, “A Rare Titanic Family: The Caldwells’ Story of Survival.”
Author Julie Williams says she often listened to the story of the Titanic told by her great-uncle, Albert Caldwell, who survived the sinking along with his wife and their son, Alden. Albert went on to become principal at Ames High School and studied for an advanced degree at Iowa State University, she says.
Williams, 52, of Birmingham, Ala., contributed photos for the Brucemore exhibit and hopes to schedule a stop on her book tour in Cedar Rapids.
Related events will be scheduled throughout the exhibit’s run through the end of July with the Cedar Rapids Public Library, Science Station, The Carl and Mary Koehler History Center, Hiawatha Public Library and Theatre Cedar Rapids.
A journalism professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Williams says the Titanic remains a captivating story not only because of the magnitude of the disaster.
“It’s because people did survive,” she says.
If you go
- WHAT: The Titanic’s Unsinkable Stories: 100 Years Later
- WHERE: Brucemore Visitors Center, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
- WHEN: Opens March 14 and continues through the end of July. Visitors Center hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.
- COST: Free. (Tours of the mansion are separate and have a fee.)