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R.M.S. Lusitania – 90th Anniversary Last New York Sailing – May 1, 1915
Destruction – May 7, 1915

cunardby John McFarlane
In August 1914 Europe was launched into a conflict that would become known as World War I. When hostilities began normal trans-Atlantic ocean liner services were maintained by some of the world's largest and fastest passenger ships. The German liners Imperator and Vaterland as well as the smaller Amerika and George Washington were regular callers at New York. The new Cunarder Aquitania and the two year old France, of the French Line, were making normal crossings between Europe and New York. The fastest passenger ships in 1914 were the Cunarders Mauretania and Lusitania sailing between Liverpool and New York. Less than one year later only Lusitania and a few smaller ships remained in commercial service. Many of the other liners had either been requisitioned for war service or, as in the case of several of the German liners, interned in neutral United States ports. Vaterland along with at least five other German liners stayed docked in Hoboken.

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Lusitania on her first call in New York docked at the unfinished Pier 54 North River.
(Photograph The Cunard Steam-Ship Company Limited)

When Lusitania entered service in 1907 she was the largest and fastest passenger ship in the world. The quadruple screw steam turbine liner was of 31,550 gross tons, 787 feet in length and was capable of a speed of 25 knots.

Captain William Turner was in command of Lusitania at New York's Pier 54 North River on the warm and wet Saturday morning, May 1, 1915. The 702 crew members were completing their sailing preparation tasks as the first passengers began to arrive at the pier. Embarkation procedures were very slow due to the additional security precautions in place for this sailing. Forty-one First and Cabin Class passengers as well as their baggage were transferred to Lusitania from the recently requisitioned liner Cameronia.
All of this was to delay the sailing time beyond the scheduled hour of 10:00 AM.

New York Times
Shipping & Mails
Saturday May 1, 1915
Outgoing Steamers
Ship ..........................To.............................Mails Close.........................Sail
Lusitania----------Liverpool---------------------------6:00 AM-----------------------10:00 AM
Rotterdam--------Rotterdam---------------------------8:30 AM-----------------------12 Noon
New York---------Liverpool---------------------------8:30 AM-----------------------12 Noon
Bergensfjord-----Bergen------------------------------10:00 AM----------------------2:00 PM
Canopic----------Naples -----------------------------No Mails----------------------10:00 AM

The New York Times, as shown in the extract above, listed the passenger ships sailing that day. The U.S. flag New York of the American Line was also scheduled to sail for Liverpool. Due to a published notice from the German Embassy some passengers cancelled their Cunard bookings and transferred to the American ship.

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New York’s Chelsea Piers showing Lusitania on the north side of Pier 54.
(Photograph Theodore W. Scull Collection.)

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The New York Times on May 1, 1915 showing the Cunard ad as well as the notice from the Imperial German Embassy.

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Lusitania departing from Pier 54 North River Circa 1910.
(Photograph The Cunard Steam-Ship Company Limited)

Lusitania sailed from Pier 54 shortly before 12:30 PM. On board were 1257 passengers and 702 crew members a total of 1959 souls. American passengers numbered 159 and of these two of the most famous were the multimillionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and the noted theatrical producer of the time, Charles Frohman. The liner turned and sailed down the river. As she steamed passed The Battery onlookers noted that the light rain stopped and the sun began to break through the cloud cover. Once out of the harbor Lusitania encountered a light fog but managed to meet up with three British Navy vessels a short while later. The warships Essex and Bristol as well as the converted liner Caronia transferred what appeared to be mail to Lusitania before the big liner began her crossing to England.

MAY 7, 1915 - THE DESTRUCTION

The Imperial German Navy submarine U-20, under the command of Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger, previously sailed from the naval base at Emden, Germany, on April 30. The U-20's orders were to patrol the area off the southern coast of Ireland. While at its station off the Old Head of Kinsale the submarine, during the past forty-eight hours, managed to torpedo and sink two Harrison Line cargo ships as well as shelling and sinking the sailing ship Earl of Latham.

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The lighthouse at the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland.
(Photograph Theodore W. Scull)

The encounter between the U-20 and the sailing ship was witnessed by local residents watching from the area near the lighthouse at the Old Head of Kinsale not far from the harbor at Queenstown, Ireland. The observers were there again on May 7 and watched as Lusitania sailed into view enroute to the St. George's Channel into the Irish Sea. U-20 was on the surface when Lusitania was first sighted. The submarine submerged and soon had the liner clearly in its sights when it fired one torpedo. At 2:10 PM just as passengers were finishing lunch the torpedo struck the starboard side of Lusitania and there followed a tremendous detonation. The liner stopped almost immediately and took a sharp list to starboard. Those watching from the headlands could see the results of the explosion as the smoke and debris flew into the air above the liner. The observers reported hearing the detonation of the torpedo and thought that there was a second explosion. The now sinking liner sent out an SOS distress signal but unfortunately all was over very quickly.
Lusitania sank in less than twenty minutes taking 1198 souls with her including 785 passengers.
Of the 124 Americans lost both Alfred Vanderbilt and Charles Frohman drowned.
Captain Turner managed to survive by swimming from the bridge as the liner slipped below the waves.

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The front page of the New York World of Saturday, May 8, 1915, incorrectly reporting that two torpedos struck the liner.

The sinking of R.M.S. Lusitania stunned both sides of the Atlantic. Although the United States remained neutral for almost two more years this tragic event was thought to be instrumental when the United States finally entered the war on the side of the Allies.

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(World War I poster courtesy of Thomas L. Abrams)

Captain Turner went back to sea and was in command of the former Cunarder, now a troop transport, Ivernia on January 1, 1917 when she was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in the Mediterranean. Once again Captain Turner survived the sinking. He then became a relief captain in Glasgow and Liverpool and retired shortly thereafter. Kapitan Schwieger, now in command of a newer submarine, U-88, was lost with his crew when the submarine was sunk by British mines near Denmark in September 1917.

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Abandoned Pier 54 North River Circa 1980's. (Photograph Theodore W. Scull)

Cunard Line stopped using Pier 54 North River over fifty years ago and it was eventually abandoned. The pier is now a recreation area but the steel shell of the dockhead has been preserved and if one looks closely Cunard Line and Cunard White Star can be read above the entrance.

Published Source Material:
• The Last Voyage of the Lusitania by A.A. Hoehling and Mary Hoehling – Henry Holt and Company, New York (1956)
• The First World War – A Complete History by Martin Gilbert – Henry Holt and Company, New York (1994)
• The Atlantic Campaign by Dan van der Vat – Harper & Row, Publishers, New York (1988)
• Fifty Famous Liners by Frank O Braynard & William H. Miller – W.W. Norton and Company, New York (1982)