On April 14th it will be 105 years since TITANIC sank. On that date in 1912, four days after crossing the Atlantic Ocean and about 600 km south of Newfoundland, the ship TITANIC hit an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. which took the world’s largest passenger ship and over 1500 souls to a watery grave 12,000 feet below the surface.
Most people will remember the tragic tale through the 1997 James Cameron film “Titanic” which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, but what many may not know, is that Ottawa has a very strong connection to this ill-fated ship that you can visit.
This quiet Titanic connection rests on a pedestal in the lobby of the Chateau Laurier Hotel, and if one feels so inclined to dig deeper, a greater connection lies in the US National Archives.
Sitting atop a wooden pedestal in the Chateau Laurier is a stone carving of the Prime Minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier, who was Prime Minister of the time the Chateau was built in 1911, and whose name adorns the hotel. Now, just to back it up a bit, our splendid downtown hotel was the brainchild of Charles M. Hays, who is credited with the formation of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, a vision he had to create a second transcontinental railroad across Canada. Part of this dream was also to build a luxury hotel in Canada’s capital, a hotel we all know as the Chateau Laurier.
Built at cost of $2million in 1911, the grand opening of the opulent hotel was planned for April 26th 1912 with Hays and Laurier to be in attendance. To complete the grand hotel before its opening, Hays travelled to London, England to purchase furniture for the dining room of the hotel and have it shipped it back to Ottawa, as well as solicit funds for his railway plans. Upon an encounter in London with a gentleman by the name of J. Bruce Ismay, Hays plans were altered in a way that would change the course of history, and his life.
The gentleman Hays met happened to be the chairman of the White Star Steamship Line, and he offered a place for Hays and his furniture shipment to Ottawa aboard a vessel that was going to be the fastest, most luxurious ship on the high seas: Titanic. Hays graciously accepted the generous offer from Ismay, paying only a small fee to travel aboard Titanic in a deluxe suite (cabin B69) on the Promenade Deck.
Hays shipment of Ottawa bound furniture that he purchased in London for the dining room of the Chateau Laurier was crated and placed in the cargo hold of Titanic. Searching out the cargo manifest of the Titanic, I found it to now be in the US National Archives, saved by another ship that happened to carry the manifest of the Titanic. I believe the Ottawa furniture is listed as “3 case furniture” under William Baumgarten & Co. which was a luxury hotel interior designer of the time that outfitted the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Whether Hays had Baumgarten design the dining room of the Chateau Laurier is unknown, but the fact that 3 crates of furniture under the name of a well-known luxury hotel designer seems too much of a coincidence. There are other listings of furniture, but none of 3 crates, a number that seems fitting for an entire dining room of a large hotel.
After a lovely 4 days of travel on Titanic, at 11:40 pm on April 14, 1912, the mighty ship hit an iceberg. As history tells us, the ship began to sink and passengers were placed in the few lifeboats that were available. Hays helped the women in his party into one of the ship’s 20 lifeboats, but he, his son-in-law and his secretary remained aboard. Hays was confident that the ship would not sink and would join his wife later, but along with the other 1500 passengers left on the ship when it sank, Hays perished in the icy waters and his body was recovered days later, found floating in the Atlantic.
Titanic took with her not only over 1500 lives, but also the cargo in her hold, including the Ottawa hotel furniture that would never see the grand opening, and new furniture for the Chateau Laurier had to be shipped in for the postponed opening later that year. On June 12th, 1912, a subdued opening ceremony was held with Sir Wilfrid Laurier in attendance, with another set of furniture lying in Titanic on the bottom of the cold Atlantic.
TITANIC OR BUST
Now that is not the only Titanic connection to the hotel as we return to that carved bust of Laurier in the lobby. That stone carving was done by a French sculptor by the name of Paul Chevre, of whom Charles Hays had commissioned to do a bust of Canadian prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier for the lobby of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway’s Château Laurier Hotel back in Ottawa. Chèvre sent the bust ahead to the hotel on another ship, but decided to travel with Hays aboard Titanic for the official opening of the hotel on April 26th. He got on Titanic in Cherbourg, France as a first class passenger (ticket number PC 17594, Cabin A-9) and played cards with some other French passengers as they crossed the Atlantic.
After the ship hit the iceberg, a lot of commotion took place but according to accounts, Chevré thought it was too cold to go outside to see what all the fuss was about. Instead he asked a Steward to open a porthole and see what was going on. Despite what was thought to be a minor incident, Chèvre pocketed his playing cards, boarded one of the first lifeboats to be lowered, and escaped the fate that befell Hays and the other 1500 passengers that night. The bust of Laurier he carved was safe on another ship, and it was placed on pedestal in the lobby of the hotel, where it still stands today.
Chèvre apparently never recovered from the trauma of what happened, and he died within two years of the sinking, feeling the shame as one of the relatively few men who had survived.
Being able to see in Ottawa the work of a Titanic survivor is one thing, but to experience a connection to what some describe as an unworldly experience is another. According to guests and staff, the ghost of Hays still haunts the Chateau Laurier hotel because he did not get to see his pride and joy of a hotel reach completion, his unfulfilled spirit haunting the hotel to this day. Inexplicable noises, moving objects and other paranormal activity lead many to believe he actually made it off Titanic and to Ottawa, just in a spirit form.
Staff at the hotel have reportedly witnessed furniture rearranging itself and objects being thrown about, perhaps this is Hays being unhappy that the furniture he chose never made it there. Whatever the case may be, Ottawa’s connection to the Titanic disaster is a close one, and it may never rest quietly.
Andrew King, April 2017