Col. George D. Wick, prominent figure in local steel industry, lost on Titanic 100 years ago

Titanic at the docks of Southampton in April 1912. Electronic image in the public domain and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: The following article was published in Metro Monthly in 1997. It subsequently appeared in “Remembering Youngstown: Tales from the Mahoning Valley,” which was published by the History Press in 2009.

By MIRIAM R. KLEIN | Special to the Metro Monthly

Even though the R.M.S. Titanic sank nearly a century ago, interest in the ill-fated ocean liner continues to capture imaginations.

The commercialization of the tragedy in a Broadway musical and Director James Cameron’s $200 million motion picture do not eclipse the tragedy of the 20th century’s most remembered maritime disaster.   It is the real story and the individuals involved that continue to fascinate the public.

When the Titanic sank in 1912, Youngstown suffered the loss of industrialist Col. George D. Wick. In an effort to restore his health, Wick had been touring Europe with his wife, Mary (Mollie) Hitchcock Wick, daughter, Mary Natalie, and their cousin, Caroline Bonnell, and Caroline’s English aunt, Elizabeth Bonnell. [Among those lost at sea were 16 people – out of 36- traveling to Ohio.]

H. William Lawson, director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, said Wick was an archetypal industrialist. “He was one of those capitalist types into just about everything,” noted Lawson.

Col. George D. Wick’s father and grandfather were founding members of the Youngstown community and build the Wick family wealth from real estate and banking. Col George D. Wick and his partner, James Campbell, after earlier ventures in the steel making industry, formed the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. in 1900 with $600,000 in capital, added Lawson.

Diana Shagla, a former assistant at the Arms Museum Library who maintains interest in the Titanic’s history, said Wick family members (now deceased) noted that “Col. Wick possessed a very shrewd business sense and was highly respected. He always thought about the good of the city and did much charity work.”

Shagla said the Youngstown community, in general, and the Wick family, in particular, deeply felt the loss of Wick, whose body was never recovered. His widow, Mary, wore darker colored dresses and slowed her community schedule after her return to Youngstown.

The Wick family pew in the First Presbyterian Church was roped off and flags flew at half-staff. The mayor of Youngstown, Fred Hartenstein, forbade the showing of any films of the sinking ship in local theaters. In addition, for five minutes at 11 a.m. on April 24, 1912, all business in Youngstown ceased in his memory.

His widow, Mary Hitchcock Wick, died of influenza in 1920 at the family’s Wick Avenue home. The residence, a red brick Georgian revival structure, was completed in 1906. The building, which overlooks the Mahoning Valley and the city, is owned and maintained by Youngstown State University. The essence of the home’s interior seems contained beneath the robin’s egg blue paint; however, the flourishes of carved wood seats, bookcases and built-in cupboards hint to the exquisite elegance of the Edwardian Age.

The Titanic, which also dated from around this period, remains a consummate symbol of this era of delineated class distinctions and extravagant wealth, which may in part explain why the tragedy that befell it still fascinates many today.

On the bitterly cold evening of April 14, 1912, just before midnight, the R.M.S. Titanic making its maiden voyage struck an iceberg that would take the ship and over 1,500 people with it to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

It was the largest steamship ever built until that time – 882 feet long and 11 stories high from keel to mast. The hull was black trimmed in white with four smoke stacks trimmed in gold. It was said to be unsinkable due to the steel double hull and watertight flood compartments. It was also said at the time: “God himself could not sink the Titanic.”

The Titanic, queen of the White Star Line, built in Belfast, Ireland and designed by Thomas Andrews, sailed from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, with 2,227 passengers and crew.

Opulent and exclusive, first class passengers enjoyed the best accommodations ever designed for a liner, including the first on-board swimming pool, a gymnasium, cafes and card room. In contemporary dollars, a first class ticket would cost $50,000. Even second-class accommodations were better than first class on other ships. Third class, nestled deep in the belly of the ship, was plain and practical.

The Titanic fascinated Janet White, a local writer and librarian, many years ago when her grandmother gave her a book about the ship. “I was very interested in the people,” said White, adding that she was drawn primarily to the less wealthy, third class passengers’ personal histories.

She has researched the lives of several immigrants from this area who were on the Titanic in third class. She wrote the story of Finnish immigrant Elin Numni in “I’m Going to See What Has Happened” with Nummi’s son, the late Gerald Nummi of Warren.

“He wanted the story of his mother to be told,” said White. The title of the book comes from the last words spoken by Elin Nummi’s first husband, Pekka Hakkarainen. The couple was on their honeymoon. They felt the impact and he left their berth to investigate; Elin Nummi never saw him again, added White.

White learned two Syrian women who were coming to Youngstown were also steerage passengers on the Titanic. Shanini Georges, returning to America from Lebanon after tending to an ill son, was among the many passengers who were placed on the Titanic due to a coal strike. The White Star Line, intent on showing off the most technologically advanced ship of their fleet and the world, took coal from other ships in order for the Titanic to sail.

After the disaster, Georges took 12-year-old Banoura Ayout, coming to America from Syria and the sole survivor of her party, with her to Youngstown. White said she is still trying to discover what happened to Ayout, who was sent to live with friends in Columbus, Ohio.

The Wicks enjoyed the Titanic’s legendary, posh first class accommodations. In an interview shortly after the sinking, Youngstown native and passenger Caroline Bonnell remembered the Titanic as a “floating palace.”

In a first-hand account, Bonnell, on the night of April 14 at 11:40 p.m., recalled she and Natalie, who were sharing a stateroom, heard “a rasping, tearing noise, but not impact.”

Excited by the prospect of seeing an iceberg, the women dressed and went up on deck. Bonnell reported no fear among the passengers and that a mischievous few pitched shards of the iceberg at one another. The sailors were calm. Men in salons were reluctant to leave card games.

“Mr. Wick refused to believe at first there was any danger, but when we went below after we had been told to put on life belts, he had dressed and met us on deck. We were all rather unconcerned,” Bonnell later told a reporter in New York.

On the upper deck, the Wick party met for the last time. Bonnell reported they had felt no danger because they could not notice the listing of the ship. Many also thought it would be safer to remain aboard the Titanic than to drift in lifeboats on the Atlantic.

“The sea was calm, the night cold and the stars shone,” Bonnell remarked in accounts of the disaster shortly thereafter.

As the women in the Wick party recalled, Col. George D. Wick helped them into a lifeboat, told them to keep up their courage and row to the light of an approaching distant ship.

Bonnell said more people could have been placed in her lifeboat, which was the second to leave the ship. (The first lifeboat held only six people.)

Many of the lifeboats lowered 90 feet to the glassy sea had been filled with fewer than half of the 60-person capacity. As accounts of the disaster have noted, the number of lifeboats on the liner fell far short of the need. Even though there were 2,227 passengers and crew on board, there were only enough lifeboats for 1,700 people. Of the total on board, 705 survived.

According to an account given by Mary Hitchcock Wick to her sister, the late Mrs. Myron Arms, the castaway party of 30 watched the vision of twinkling lights disappear deck by deck until there was only a dark shadow of the stern lifted toward a crystalline, moonless sky.

Around 2:20 a.m., April 15, the silent group heard the dreadful noise of explosions and the cries of agony from people attempting to swim in the 28-degree water. At dawn, the liner Carpathia rescued the lifeboat holding the remaining Wicks.

After the disaster, disabled victims and families left destitute by the loss of fathers and husbands sued the White Star Line for compensation. Many of the plaintiffs stated the ship was navigated recklessly and many widows said their husbands were prevented from entering lifeboats. The famous call for “women and children first” had been interpreted to mean women and children only by some of the crew.

In 1985, in a joint effort between American and French deep-sea explorers, the wreck of the Titanic was found 2.5 miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Investigations of the wreck revealed the vessel did not suffer a 300-foot gash from the crash into the iceberg. The steel of the hull had become brittle in the frigid water. The iceberg, it is now thought, caused six, 4-foot slits along the starboard hull and weakened rivets popped out along the ship’s seam.

During follow-up expeditions to the site the salvage company, R.M.S. Titanic, Inc., recovered thousands of artifacts, including a silver tray, a beacon light, a brass cherub decoration, and even papers.

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