One hundred years ago, the British passenger liner RMS Titanic sank on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic.Considered a marvel of sumptuous luxury and Progressive Era industrial engineering, the ship charged confidently through icy waters at high speeds, struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland, then went down in under three hours.
More than 1,500 people died, including very wealthy Americans and many poorer European emigrants. 710 survivors of the wreck were rescued from life boats and carried to New York by the British ship, RMS Carpathia. The Roosevelt and Delano families knew several of the first class passengers who died.
In honor of the Titanic's 100th anniversary, we look back at how FDR's family reacted to the infamous disaster.
Letters to a Young State Senator
Franklin D. Roosevelt was a 30 year old NY State Senator in April of 1912. Paying a visit to the Panama Canal construction zone, FDR found himself away from the country when the RMS Titanic went down.
In a long letter to his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin described many details of his exciting Panama trip, then closed with a request that she save for him all the news related to Titanic. He says, “We know practically no details, only scraps here and there. I am counting on your saving all the papers for every day I am away…”
Sara replied to Franklin, sharing her feelings of sorrow at the tragedy:
“I have not been able to get my thoughts away from the awful disaster, it seems too terrible to be true. The confidence in the 'unsinkableness’ of the great ship, the shortage of life boats, of long distance glasses no search lights, all these faults are doubtless common to all the great liners. Such warnings are I suppose necessary from time to time and for a time great care will be taken. Rosy is much upset over poor Jack Astor's death and spends most of his time at Mr. Ledyard's office. Mr. Millet, Mr. Widener, Major Archie Butt and Mary, others were well known but oh! the tragedies in the steerage as well. Even if we ought not to believe all we read, the facts remain some splendid things redeem it, the band playing till they sank, the stewards standing at the rail singing "Nearer My God to Thee" as the last life boat was moving out of sight!”
Eleanor Roosevelt, who had stayed with their children in Albany, also wrote to Franklin. In a long letter spanning several days of writing, she describes learning about the ship, and expresses sorrow, fear and concern for Franklin’s safety abroad:
“The news of the Titanic disaster came in the morning but the reports were that all were saved until quite late at night. It is so appalling and awful and I think almost worse for the many women who were saved and who would probably far rather have gone down with their husbands and sons. I am so glad you are at least out of the track of icebergs.”
Later she wrote, “I went to the Cathedral Sunday morning and heard the poor old Bishop speak on the Titanic disaster and then they had prayers for the dead and sang ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save,’ and everyone remained standing while they played the Dead March from Saul. It was very impressive and very harrowing when one realized for how many people it meant a really terrible grief.”
And then, “Since the Titanic I think everyone is nervous and I don’t think I will ever let you go away again alone. Even Cousin Henry is wrought up for he saw two ships had collided in the Gulf & went up at once to ask Harry if they had news of you.”
Franklin returned safely to the country later that spring. Outrage from the preventable tragedy of Titanic sparked a movement for international reforms in maritime safety. The Titanic remains one of the most famous ships in history and its demise an infamous and often dramatized event.
Read the Full Letters
Sara Delano Roosevelt also noted several Titanic -related events in her 1912 daybook (right).
More about Titanic
To mark the 100th anniversary, the UK’s National Archives now features an extensive online exhibit, featuring historical documents, photographs and more: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/titanic/