Sunday, April 15, 2012

A potentially Titanic life cut short

A lot is being said today about the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic and the unfortunate deaths of over 1500 people in the icy waters of the Atlantic. I'll be thinking about one of a handful of New Jersey notables to perish on the ship, Trenton native Washington A. Roebling, II. The 31 year old son of Charles, the president of John A. Roebling's Sons Company, Washington was returning to the United States after touring Europe with business associates. He hadn't been discussing bridges or wire rope, though; he was all about automobiles.

Washington Roebling II memorial at the family plot
in Riverview Cemetery in Trenton. 
Young Washington had worked at the family business for a few years before taking an interest in the nascent car manufacturing industry. In the days before the Ford, Chrysler and General Motors became the Big Three, there were dozens of small automobile companies around the country, including a high end brand owned by William Walter, a family friend. Seeing an opportunity when Walter ran into financial trouble, Washington was among several partners who purchased the company, moved it from New York to an old brewery plant in Trenton and renamed it the Mercer Automobile Company.

Like his father and uncles, Washington was a talented engineer, a skill that came to great use in designing and building high-performance cars. He didn't just make them, though; he drove them, too, to some success. Competing behind the wheel of his custom-designed Roebling Planche racer, he took second place honors at the Vanderbilt Cup Race in 1910.

Washington chose to take the maiden voyage of the Titanic after touring Italy and France with his friend Stephen Weart Blackwell and chauffeur Frank Stanley. Rather than bringing a Mercer to Europe, Washington took a Fiat, which seems kind of like bringing pork roll to Trenton. A Night to Remember, the seminal chronicle of the experiences of upper class Titanic passengers, says little about Washington, other than relating his calm and helpful demeanor in helping women into lifeboats. Those whom he helped said he assured them they'd be all right and possibly even back on the ship by daybreak. If he'd heard about the severity of the damage to the ship, he was well aware that staying on board would lead to certain death, but he followed the gentlemen's code of the day and remained.

One can only wonder what Washington might have achieved with the Mercer Automobile Company had he lived to old age. The few Mercers still around are treasured as specimens of some of the finest auto engineering of the day. Perhaps Trenton would have become a mecca for high-performance racing, or the Mercer would be prized along with the Porsche and Lamborghini.

Incidentally, the Fiat didn't go down with the ship. Stanley had fallen ill in Europe and left a week later, taking the car with him.


1 comment:

  1. Sue, I took a walking tour in NYC and the theme was Titanic. The guide talked about Roebling and told this story but a few details were different (one detail was that the car was on a ship that sailed the week before the Titanic, not the week after). Also, he said that in the movie the Titanic, there was car on the ship (where Rose and Jack consumated their romance), and that was probably a nod to Roebling, even though the facts were off. A lot of interesting tidbits (p.s. it never came up that Roebling was a Jerseyite).

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