Behind-the-scenes of the Titanic Rescue Ship

Issue #38

The R.M.S. Carpathia, a Cunard Line passenger steamship first launched in 1902, is not as well known as its contemporary, the R.M.S. Titanic, but their stories are forever linked. In its brief 16 years of service, the Carpathia was witness to more human drama than most warships. Thanks to a series of brave captains and crew members, the Carpathia earned a reputation as one of the most capable passenger ships ever to make the journey across the notoriously dangerous North Atlantic.

The R.M.S. Carpathia and the Sinking of the Titanic

On 6 August 1902 the massive Cunard Line transatlantic passenger steamship R.M.S. Carpathia was launched into the River Tyne in northeast England, the start of a 16-year career that was much more illustrious than its designers ever envisioned.

Originally intended to be a passenger ship, the Carpathia, 558 feet long and 64 feet wide, was neither the fastest ship on the Atlantic nor the most luxurious, but was instead a practical compromise of both. The Carpathia could carry as many as 1,700 passengers, plus more cargo than previous passenger ships. Although she was not the most glamorous steamship, the Carpathia was well-appointed. The lavishly decorated dining room featured a cream and gold theme with mahogany furniture, all situated underneath a stained-glass dome. The ship also included a walnut paneled smoking room, a dedicated “ladies’ room” (a smokeless version of the men-only smoking room), a library, and electrified lighting throughout the ship, an extravagance at the time (oil lamps were on hand as backups in case of electrical failure). 

The R.M.S. Carpathia’s initial journeys ran between Liverpool and Boston, which took about a week each way (before the steamship, this journey took around six weeks). During winter months, the ship traveled between Liverpool and the Mediterranean. Starting in 1904, the Cunard entered into an agreement with the Royal Hungarian Sea Navigation Company "Adria" to transport Hungarian immigrants to New York City. So many people were seeking to immigrate that the Carpathia enlarged its passenger capacity to meet the need, eventually transporting up to 2,450 passengers and 300 crew members at a time. 

The Carpathia was a popular ship, gaining a reputation for reliability, speed, and comfort, thanks to its relatively wide-keel design which kept the ship from rocking. In her first decade at sea, the R.M.S. Carpathia established herself as a reliable workhorse for the Cunard Line, with many more years of passenger service ahead of her. All that changed on 15 April 1912. On that night at 11:40 PM in the North Atlantic Ocean, the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg.

The Titanic was also a passenger steamship, but one constructed on a completely different scale. Although the Titanic carried about the same number of passengers and crew as the Carpathia, the Titanic was much bigger and grander than any other ship of its day. The Titanic ran 882 feet long and 92 feet wide and her gross tonnage was 46,328 tons (compared to the Carpathia’s 13,600). The Titanic had ten decks (the Carpathia, four) and an array of amenities on board, from lavish dining rooms to multiple libraries, ballrooms, cafes, restaurants, reading rooms, a Palm Court, a telegraph system, and of course a grand staircase in the middle of the ship. The most expensive accommodation on the ship was the Parlour Suite, which cost $4,350 (around $117,000 today) for the one-way trip to New York. 

The Titanic left Southampton on 10 April 1912 with great fanfare, the biggest and most extravagant passenger ship ever built. Onboard were 892 crewmembers and 1,320 passengers, a diverse group of travellers that included some of the world’s richest people (American millionaires John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, and Isidor Straus, owner of Macy’s department store, all eventually perished in the disaster. Financier and Titanic owner J.P. Morgan cancelled his trip at the last minute.) The majority of passengers, however, traveled in Third Class, where they were inspected by medical staff to ensure they would not be turned away upon reaching the United States. Most of the nearly 900 crew members were hired shortly before the ship’s launch and the majority were tasked with jobs such as food preparation and engine room work, jobs requiring no previous seafaring experience. Captain Edward John Smith was 62 years old and had four decades of history on ships, coming to the helm of the Titanic from the almost equally huge ship, the R.M.S. Olympic. 

The April journey was the ship’s maiden voyage between Southampton, England and New York City. After nearly smashing into a nearby boat as she left the harbor, then extinguishing a coal fire in the hold a couple days into the voyage, on the fourth day of the trip the Titanic reached the North Atlantic ice fields, where a relatively warm winter had sent more than the usual number of small icebergs floating freely in the water. Although lookouts were on patrol in an attempt to avoid the ice, many at the time believed that modern ships were so massive that icebergs would pose little threat to a craft the size of the Titanic. Captain Smith himself had been at the helm of the Olympic when she struck another ship, and the Olympic sustained few damages. As Smith later put it, he "could not imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that." The night of 14 April, the Titanic steamed ahead at full speed through the frigid water. 

Then the Titanic struck an iceberg. The force of the impact caused the steel plates below the waterline to buckle, allowing water to begin seeping in. Five airtight compartments were compromised in this way; the ship’s design allowed for only four to be compromised without sinking. The huge ship began to fill with water from the front, tipping the boat at an increasingly steep angle as the ship sank. 

At this point the Titanic began issuing distress signals, one of which the Carpathia answered. The Carpathia had left New York City on 11 April, heading back to Europe, when officers received the Titanic’s call. At 12:15 A.M. on 15 April, the Carpathia’s Captain Arthur Henry Rostron ordered the ship turned around to answer the call. Stoking the coal-fueled engines below deck, the Carpathia raced the 58 nautical miles that separated the two ships, but it still took three hours to reach the floundering ship. By the time they arrived, the Titanic was already completely submerged.

 "The sea was like glass, so smooth that the stars were clearly reflected," recalled one of the survivors, and many witnesses remarked on the eerie stillness of the calm, moonless night. Shortly after midnight, stewards began rousing the Titanic’s passengers and mustering them to the lifeboats. But there were only 20 boats; although the Titanic was designed to carry 68. This was typical of huge passenger ships at the time, few of which provided enough boats to hold every person on board (the 20 boats on the Titanic were capable of holding fewer than half the number of passengers onboard that night); lifeboats were generally seen as a temporary measure solely designed to transport passengers from the compromised ship to a nearby rescue vessel. By the time the Titanic sank, not all of the 20 lifeboats had even been utilized, and those which had were only half-filled. Some witnesses reported seeing the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, throwing wooden deck chairs off the side of the boat so those swimming in the water could have something to hang onto. Captain Smith was seen diving into the water moments before the entire boat was submerged. Very few of the immigrants in the Third Class decks, nor the crew working in the engine and boiler rooms, made it to the lifeboats at all.

The Carpathia arrived at 4:00 A.M. and over the next four hours brought the 705 survivors, mostly women and children, onboard. Despite freezing temperatures many of the Titanic survivors remained on deck, frantically searching the water for signs of loved ones. By 9:00 A.M. the last of the survivors had been rescued. Over 1500 people had already disappeared with the ship. 

The Carpathia left the dangerous ice field and turned back toward New York City to deliver the survivors. Later it was discovered that several other ships had heard the Titanic’s distress calls, but only the Carpathia braved the icebergs (dodging them as she went) to save the sinking ship. Captain Rostron protected the survivors from the immediate influx of media attention (journalists’ inquiries dominated the telegraph traffic onboard) and, once safely docked, he and his crew received numerous awards for their bravery and competence, including some awarded by the passengers themselves, while Captain Rostron received a knighthood from Britain’s King George V and a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor from the United States Congress. 

The Carpathia survived the Titanic rescue unscathed and continued running trips across the Atlantic. When the First World War began in 1914 the Carpathia was utilized for troop deployment, transporting American and Canadian Expeditionary forces to the European theater. On 17 June 1918, while traveling from Liverpool to Boston in a convoy in an attempt to defend against German submarine attacks, the Carpathia was struck by a German U-boat torpedo and began to take on water. Captain William Prothero succeeded not only in saving 218 of the 223 people onboard, but also destroyed all sensitive military documents the ship carried before he and his crew disembarked, following the passengers. The Carpathia sank 120 miles off the coast of Fasntnet, Ireland, the fifth Cunard Line ship to be destroyed in five weeks.  In 2000 the wreck of the Carpathia was discovered sitting upright on the ocean floor.

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Stowaways, Anarchists and Undesirables: Immigration Laws & Changing Passenger Manifests

Have you ever wondered why all passenger manifests were not created equal, with the manifest for one ancestor offering little to no information and the manifest for another offering an abundance of details, or encountering yet another ancestor with no arrival record at all? Or, perhaps you’ve wondered why it mattered how much money a person had in their pocket upon arrival or if they were considered “of good character” and what exactly that meant? The answers to these questions primarily have to do with changing immigration laws from the founding of the nation to the present day. 

The Myth of the Family Stowaway

It can be well-argued that as long as there has been transportation there have also been stowaways; however, the number of American families with a stowaway origin story can be likened to a myth of epic proportions. So, was your ancestor really a stowaway or is there another explanation? 

Until the passage of the Steerage Act of 1819, the United States Federal Government did not require captains and shipmasters to furnish a passenger or customs manifest upon arrival at a United States port. This law went into effect on 1 January 1820 and the first manifest recorded at the port of New York was the brig Hippomenes arriving from the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao on 7 January with a single recorded passenger, 38-year-old merchant J. M. Meert. The only extant passenger manifests held by the National Archives and Records Administration prior to that date are for the ports of New Orleans and Philadelphia, and the surviving records for those ports are small in scope and number and are also incomplete. This means that there is an exceedingly high likelihood that the arrival of your colonial immigrant ancestors went undocumented.

Even though the Steerage Act required manifests from foreign ports to be filed with United States customs officials, there are still passenger lists throughout the mid-1800s which are simply no longer extant due to records loss or damage. There are also many passenger lists held at the National Archives which have not been digitized and are only available onsite as textual and microfilm records. You may also encounter individuals in digitized records with the same names and similar demographics who either may not actually be your ancestor or, frustratingly, may not have enough identifying information to verify as your ancestor. Consider these options if you are unable to locate your ancestor on a passenger manifest. 

What about those ancestors who were stowaways? The stealthy and brave jump into the water and the swim to shore makes for a great story, but is part of the larger mythos of the stowaway. Given the days or weeks-long journey across oceans and the general busy and heavily-populated nature of a ship, the likelihood of a person going undiscovered for an entire journey remains low. Stowaways who were discovered on board were added to a ship’s manifest with a notation for their status. These individuals were detained, both on the ship and then by customs officials at the port of arrival, while their immigration status was determined and they were either deported or allowed to enter the country. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation has a brief interest video, Ellis Island Stowaways, which discusses some of the stowaways who made national headlines and how their cases were handled. 

Changing Laws & Changing Information

As happens today, the ebb and flow of public opinion and the politics of domestic and foreign policy have always dictated immigration laws; some for the betterment and some to the detriment of different groups of people. 

The deaths of thousands of immigrants on crowded ships during the 1840s and 50s, due to diseases like typhus and cholera, necessitated the repeal of the Steerage Act and the passage of its replacement, the Carriage Passengers Act of 1855. This act imposed new standards for provisions, space, cleanliness and order which would limit the spread of disease and also required a customs inspector to make a written report of each ship that came into port. The passage of this act added informational columns to the passenger manifest: a column for where in the ship a passenger was located, and a column for date and cause of death. This is because the shipmaster was levied a fine of ten dollars for every passenger over age eight who was not in a cabin-class and died of disease while on board. 

During the 1870s and 1880s, the first Federal laws to restrict immigration were the Page Act of 1875 and the subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which barred the involuntary transport of Asian immigrants or the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution. These laws also primarily targeted the Chinese and Japanese workers who were employed in mines and in building the railroads during the period of Westward Expansion, and put a 10-year moratorium on the immigration of Chinese laborers. These acts also made it possible for customs officials to detain Asian immigrants and question them on issues of “moral behavior.” This became the start of the “slippery slope” of morality-based questioning seen on the passenger manifests of later years and the consideration of large groups of people as “undesirable” additions to the population.

The Passenger Act of 1882 was the first broad Federal immigration act to be signed into law and was also the first act to place restrictions on European immigrants, barring those who were deemed “convict, lunatic, idiot or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge.” This act also levied a duty (head tax) of fifty cents for every passenger who was not a United States citizen, paid by the shipmaster or shipping company, to defray the cost burden of immigrants who were either poor or sick and became public charges. This duty also ensured that shipping companies were incentivized to be meticulous record-keepers for anyone on board in order to lessen their tax bill and avoid fines. 

With immigrants coming to American shores at a fevered pace, head taxes were continually raised and new and even more restrictive immigration laws came in quick succession, including but not limited to: the Immigration Acts of 1891 and 1893 (which expanded the “undesirables” list to include the poor and paupers, those who had terminal or contagious diseases, those who practiced polygamy, and certain classes of assisted or solicited immigrants; the 1891 act also instituted a medical exam to inspect all passengers), the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1903 (which added epileptics, Anarchists and political extremists to the exclusion lists; and ticketing and monetary information to passenger manifests), the Naturalization Act of 1906 (which added physical descriptions to the passenger manifests and also a description of the immigrant’s hometown), the Immigration Act of 1907 (which banned immigrants whom surgeons deemed mentally or physically “defective” and whose condition could hamper their ability to earn a living; this act also added the manifest requirement of the nearest relative in the country of origin), the Immigration Act of 1917 (which barred immigrants from many Asian countries and extensively added to the exclusions or “undesirables” lists at the height of World War I, and also required that immigrants over the age of 16 had to be able to read in any language), and finally, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 imposed which groups of people could freely enter the United States and which could enter under capped national origins quotas, a system that is still in place today. 

All of these legal changes and the increased gathering of information dramatically altered the collection of personal details and the circumstances of our ancestors’ arrivals to the United States. Beyond the meticulous deciphering of the details on the passenger manifest, browse through all of the pages for that ship’s arrival. There were often instructions at the end of a section which may help to clarify the provided information, and the immigration law under which the manifest was written may be noted on the first page. Understanding the context of the laws in place at the time of your ancestor’s arrival will help you to understand the beginning of their “American experience” from the moment they reached port.

Helpful Resource

Learn about Jewish-specific research in the article Jewish Genealogy: Periods of Mass Emigration and Immigration.

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Past Issues Worth Reading


Maritime Executive ( : accessed 1 July 2021), “Carpathia's Role in Titanic's Rescue.” 

The White Star Line History Website ( : accessed 1 July 2021), “List of White Star Line ships that sank.” 

Norway-Heritage ( : accessed 1 July 2021), “The White Star Line.” 

National Underwater and Marine Agency ( : accessed 1 July 2021), “Wreck of the Carpathia, Titanic’s Rescuer, Found.” 

Jack Beresford, The Irish Post ( : accessed 1 July 2021), “The story of RMS Carpathia: 12 incredible facts about the ship that saved Titanic's survivors.” 

Anne Sibert Buiter, Tracing Immigrants Through the Port of New York: Early National Period to 1924 (New York : New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 2020). 

Emma Goldman, PBS ( : accessed 23 June 2021), American Experience, “Immigration and Deportation at Ellis Island.” 

National Archives and Records Administration ( : accessed 23 June 2021), “Immigration Records.”

Norwich University Online, Norwich University ( : accessed 23 June 2021), 6 November 2017, “Isolationism and U.S. Foreign Policy After World War I.” 

The Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation ( : accessed 23 June 2021), “Understanding Manifests: Names Crossed Out.” 

The Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation ( : accessed 23 June 2021), “What Happened When A Stowaway Was Discovered.” 

“New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” database with images, ( accessed 23 June 2021), entry for J.M. Meert, date of arrival 7 January 1820, Brig Hippomenes; citing “Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897,” NARA Washington D.C., publication no. M237, list no. 001, ship Hippomenes

Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site, National Park Service ( : accessed 24 June 2021), “Ulysses S. Grant, Chinese Immigration, and the Page Act of 1875.”

United States Congress, National Archives: Our Documents ( : accessed 24 June 2021), “Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).”

Office of the Historian of the Department of State, United States Department of State ( : accessed 24 June 2021), “The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act).”

Wikimedia Commons, database with images ( Emigration to America.jpg : 16 December 2020), digital image of 1876 illustration, published in Harper’s Weekly “File:Chinese Emigration to America.jpg;” file uploaded by Marku1988.

Wikimedia Commons, database with images ( Halifax.jpg : 1 July 2021), digital image of original photograph,  “File:Carpathia Halifax.jpg;” photograph uploaded by user Michael Gasoline.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, “George Grantham Bain Collection,” digital images, Library of Congress ( : accessed 1 July 2021), digital image of original glass negative, “TITANIC life boats on way to CARPATHIA.” Bain News Service, publisher, reproduction number: LC-DIG-ggbain-11212.

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