Texans and the Titanic
Imagining what it must have been like on the Titanic after she hit an iceberg that distant night of April 14, 1912 is easy enough, especially if you’ve seen the Leonardo DiCaprio movie. But try envisioning it on a moonless night during a squall while looking off the stern of a cruise ship in the Atlantic, only a little more than a day’s sail from the sunken wreckage of the supposedly unsinkable ocean liner.
Earlier that day, our ship had called at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where 150 victims of the disaster are buried in three cemeteries. Whether intentional or accidental, the four long rows of grave markers in Fairview Lawn Cemetery (which has the most victim graves) curve in such a way as to suggest half a ship.
Making about 20 knots on her way to our next stop at Bar Harbor, ME, the 21-year-old, 719-foot M.S. Veendam rolled gently in a middling rough sea. The cruise ship, as the captain had explained, had a stabilizer system to keep the vessel from swaying overmuch in the swell.
Thankful for that piece of nautical engineering, not to mention modern radar and sophisticated maritime communication, I sat in our cabin reading a book about the disaster that claimed the lives of 1,517 passengers and crew. With wind whistling around the glass door leading to our veranda, I got up to look outside. The early September sea air felt mildly cool, but staring at the empty, dark vastness of the Atlantic made me really appreciate our warm, well-lit room.
What would it have been liked bobbing around in that icy water with nothing but a life vest on or sitting in a crowded lifeboat watching the giant ship stand on end before it broke in two and slipped beneath the surface to settle on the bottom three miles below? Shortly after we’d left Montreal, Canada, our captain had ordered a mandatory emergency drill and we knew where to go if we had to abandon ship. We also knew, unlike the Titanic, that the Veendam had ample lifeboat space for all aboard.
Most of the Titanic victims who ended up in Halifax’s cemeteries have never been identified. Though DNA testing has led to some modern identifications of some of those buried in Nova Scotia, no one knows whether Samuel Beard Risien and his wife Emma lie among them. They may have been buried at sea or their bodies never found.
Though not Texans by birth, they had been living at Groesbeck in Limestone County when they left on one of numerous trips they had taken from the Lone Star State to Risien’s native England as well as to South Africa. Before heading back to Texas, Risien sent his son a postcard:
“About the time you get this we will be leaving for N. York. We expect to sail on the new ship ‘Titanic’ largest in the world (45,000 tons)...we shall sail...on April 10th that is if they can get coal enough to go on. It [coal] is getting very scarce and dear. Both well, Papa.”
Two former Texans also died in the infamous disaster -- James H. Bracken and Alfred Rowe. Bracken had lived for a time near Bend, a small town on the Colorado River in San Saba County. Rowe owned a large ranch near Clarendon in Donley County.
Bracken, born in Kentucky in 1881, gained his Texas connection in marrying San Saba county native Addie Greathouse in 1907. Later they moved from Bend to New Mexico, and it was from there that he left for England on a cattle-buying trip. On his way home as a second-class passenger when the ship sank, his body was never identified.
In the late 1870s, British citizen Rowe, born in Peru in 1853, bought a ranch in the Panhandle and spent most of his time in Texas until the early 1900s. In 1910, he moved back to Kensington, England but still made business trips back to his ranch. He was traveling as a first-class passenger when the ship went down. His body was recovered and his remains were shipped to England for burial.
Another Titanic Texan likely never expected to end up here. Born in England in 1879, Albert Edward James Horswill (occasionally misspelled with an “e” instead of “i”) was an able bodied seamen aboard the Titanic who survived the tragedy.
Only 11 years old, he had “run away to sea,” shipping out on a sailing vessel operating out of the then-bustling English port of Liverpool. Later he joined the Royal Navy and served on a variety of warships until an accidental artillery explosion left him with a severe hearing loss.
On April 6, 1912, for 5 pounds a month in pay, he signed on as a crew member of the Titanic. Eight days later, he lay asleep in his bunk when the world’s largest ship crashed into a large ice berg. He helped row Lifeboat No. 1, which could have held 40 people but only had 12 on board.
Horswill remained with the White Line Co. until 1913, when he moved to the U.S. He spent some time in Chicago, married, and later settled in Gary, Ind., where he worked at various industrial jobs until retiring in 1946. In the early 1950s, to be closer to his grandkids, he and his wife moved to Texas. He never got over his survivor’s guilt.
The old sailor died at 83 in 1962 and was buried at Rosewood Memorial Park in Humble on April 10 -- the 50th anniversary of the Titanic’s departure from her port in Southampton.