The District’s Titanic Memorial

Until recently, one of the best known associations between the name Titanic and the District was a popular Thai restaurant on 14th Street.

That’s changed a bit this year, as today marks one hundred years since the RMS Titanic’s sinking in the icy waters of the northern Atlantic. Many Washingtonians are discovering that the District has had its own memorial to the Titanic tragedy for more than 80 years.

Even for me, the Titanic memorial was more of a trivia fact about the city’s obscure monuments. I had never actually seen it, since my tours rarely go near its location at the Southwest Waterfront.

But yesterday, I visited it for the first time to attend a ceremony commemorating the centennial of the Titanic’s sinking.

There were 1,517 white bag luminarias, each one inscribed with a name of a passenger who didn’t make it off the boat.

It was fascinating to walk along and read them, a mix of famous names from first class – like Astor and Guggenheim – and more common ones from third class.

Jaunty music from 1912 played while images of the passengers were projected with captions of who they were and what happened to them.

Most of those who didn’t survive were men, which is the purpose behind this particular monument.

While it’s named the Women’s Titanic Memorial, it was built in D.C. to honor the men who gave their spots on lifeboats to women and children (this means not you, Billy Zane).

It’s a thirteen-foot, granite statue of a man with arms outstretched, designed by American sculptor and heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Ironically, her brother had canceled his ticket to travel on the Titanic at the last minute, but would die three years later on the RMS Lusitania. The base of the memorial was provided by Henry Bacon, who designed the Lincoln Memorial.

The Women’s Titanic Memorial was originally placed at a more central location at the end of New Hampshire Avenue on the banks of the Potomac in 1931, and dedicated by former First Lady Helen Taft.

The memorial was moved in 1966 when the Kennedy Center was built on the site, and installed in 1968 at its current location along the Washington Channel by Fort McNair, at about 4th and P Streets SW.

There is another, even more obscure Titanic memorial in the District, although this one has a prominent place near the White House on the Ellipse.

It’s a fountain commemorating District resident Major Archibald Butt and his friend Francis Millet, both of whom died on the Titanic.

Major Butt was an aide to Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and was taking an extended vacation in 1912 to restore his health and perhaps avoid a contentious election campaign between his two benefactors.

Those who were lost in the accident seem relegated to old photographs and the pages of history books, despite the 3D re-release of James Cameron’s Titanic.

But as I was walking along the long line of white bags reading the names, one woman stopped and let out a cry of surprise. She picked up the bag she had been looking for, with the name of her great uncle written on it.

It was a reminder that sometimes history isn’t all that far removed from present day.

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