Willoughby: Trains, the Titanic and other travel terrors
Legends and Legacies
If you booked a flight recently, you may have checked whether the airplane would be a Boeing 747 Max 8. Two deadly airplane crashes within five months, and the barrage of reports that followed, injected terror into what most had considered safe everyday travel.
The wreck of the RMS Titanic affected Aspen travelers similarly. A review of history provides further context.
For those who lived in Aspen during 1912, the year the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, transportation technology had made great strides. Those who settled early in the decade witnessed the evolution of railroads. They had seen and experienced a network of tracks that connected small towns such as Aspen to travel possibilities throughout the country and world.
More important, Aspen attracted adventuresome citizens who enjoyed travel and had endured difficult journeys. The Aspen Times reported locals’ journeys daily, including commonplace trips to New York and San Francisco. Five years after trains reached Aspen, locals traveled to the Chicago World Expedition of 1892. And trains figured in locals’ travel to the 1889 Exposition in Paris, where they marveled at the Eiffel Tower.
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Not as commonplace, travel by sea transported the wealthiest Aspenites to Europe. At the end of the century, some survived the ocean trip from San Francisco or Seattle toward the Yukon Territory for the Klondike gold rush.
Similar to railroads, ocean-going passenger vessels also brought technological change to the world of travel. Sail-driven ships morphed into sail/steam hybrids, and onward into safer, faster, steam-powered behemoths.
Touted as the epitome, the Titanic could carry over 4,000 people at unimaginable speed (about 20 miles an hour). It aimed to provide luxurious transatlantic transport. And it was advertised as the safest ship ever built, unsinkable. Five waterproof chambers would keep it afloat so long as three of the five remained intact. On April 15, 1912, the ship collided with an iceberg and damaged three chambers.
Around 1,500 passengers perished and 700 survived.
Aspen Times covered the story and subsequent inquisition, more interesting because Mrs. J.J. Brown had survived the wreck. She and her husband had lived in Aspen during the 1880s, according to a short note in the paper a few days after the sinking.
But we know Mrs. Brown as The Unsinkable Molly Brown, now one of the most famous survivors. After they moved from Aspen to Leadville, Brown’s husband made his fortune. Margaret Brown, a popular socialite before the journey, used her status to help other survivors.
In context of the time, the sinking of the Titanic impacted the public in a way similar to the crashes of the Boeing planes. A few months of travel terror interrupt the ascendency of transportation triumphs.
Years after the Titanic disaster, sunken passenger ships stirred Aspenites’ sinister feelings. Germany torpedoed ships that carried civilians, and those attacks led us into war.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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