History of family, city recalled during visit to Titanic exhibit

April 28, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

PRESERVED WITHIN my grandmother's mahogany letter-writing box was a single envelope printed with a return address of the Women's Titanic Relief Committee, in care of Robert Garrett and Sons in downtown Baltimore.

When I asked her about this piece of paper she had saved for more than 40 years, she told me that the sinking of that ship was such a calamity she couldn't bear to toss her reminder of the event away.

And so, when my sister proposed a family visit to the Maryland Science Center's newly opened Titanic show, I thought that this is a story worth retelling and relearning.

Seven of us assembled in the harbor on a fine Baltimore Sunday morning. When the children spotted a huge photo banner of the Titanic rising in the Belfast shipyard, I thought about Baltimore's deep maritime roots - and Key Highway, the street the science center faces, the same street that ship builders and repairers worked three shifts a day on oceangoing vessels.

Weren't these the same sort of dry docks and traveling cranes on the other side of the Atlantic? And, maybe a little less than a mile away, in Locust Point, didn't steamships call weekly and discharge hundreds of European immigrants there?

Our harbor has been prettified - my niece Mary looked at the Inner Harbor and called it "the pool." I was afraid we couldn't get them into the science center when they spotted their favorite harbor vessel, the little scow that scoops the trash out of the Patapsco. But venture a bit eastward and our harbor stops playing tourist attraction and goes to work.

I knew we were off and running when the reception staff at the science center handed us tickets imprinted with the name of a Titanic crew member or passenger. Then, within the darkened chambers of the exhibition space, I heard moody, sobering music.(I'll have to admit that about six years ago, while on a wintertime trip to London, I visited an earlier show generally limited to Titanic artifacts brought up from the ocean's depths. And while that display had its highly arresting moments, I found this Baltimore version told me more about the science of that night. It explained more and answered many more questions.)

My niece Katie darted to an actual iceberg chunk somehow kept from melting. She put her hand on it so long I think her print is still on it. My nephew Paul took to a ship's wheel which, aided by television screens, allowed you in a simulation to divert the Titanic around the iceberg. I think we'd all still be at this video marvel if the lunchroom and gift shop didn't have greater pulling power.

And for all the science - the section of the steel and rivets is amazing - the Titanic is a story about people. There, at the show's end, is a narrative on Baltimore's connections to that night, stories of passengers of interest to Baltimoreans, like the woman who made it into the lifeboat, only to wind up in Baltimore and find her eternal resting place at Oak Lawn Cemetery on Eastern Avenue.

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