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West Michigan’s Connections to the Titanic to be Presented Thursday Evening at Otsego Area Historical Museum

On the evening of April 14, the RMS Titanic—the famed “unsinkable” ship—struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean. It was just four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to the United States.  In less than three hours, the ship sank and of the over 2,200 passengers onboard (including many of the world’s wealthiest), only 705 people survived.

Many people are not aware of the many Michigan connections to this fateful ship. Historian Jay Follis, Director of Marketing for the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, will chronicle “Titanic: West Michigan Connections” on Thursday, April 14 from 7-8:30pm at the Otsego Area Historical Museum at 218 N. Farmer Street in downtown Otsego. No admission is charged, but donations are gratefully accepted.

“Michigan has several connections to the disaster,” says Follis. “More than 60 passengers aboard the doomed liner were from Michigan or heading to our state.” These included the ultra-wealthy who booked 1st Class accommodations to those in 3rd Class immigrating to the state. Each had their own dreams and aspirations. And each, according to Follis, “has their own fascinating stories.”

Follis will present amazing, yet little-known stories of several Michigan passengers aboard the doomed liner; how within weeks of the sinking, a Michigan college student launched a now century-old publishing company with his book about the Titanic; and how a hometown hero met the rescue ship Carpathia in New York Harbor and led the Senate investigation into the disaster; among many other fascinating stories.

While he doesn’t exhibit any recovered objects, Follis will display several actual White Star Line of artifacts, showcasing authentic objects from Titanic’s sister ships that are identical to items used onboard and found at its wreck site. Rare photos, postcards, sheet music, and newspapers surrounding the event can also be viewed.

During his captivating multi-presentation, with both he and his wife Barbara dressed in period attire, the audience will be introduced to many Michigan lives lost, rescued or forever impacted by the iconic disaster.

As a researcher and museum professional, Follis has passionately pursued many facets of American history, including a fascination with the R.M.S. Titanic that has lasted over four-decades. In fact, he gave his first public presentation about the Titanic to a historical society when he was only 14 years old.

During the past few decades, Follis has given hundreds of presentations throughout the United States. He first joined the Titanic Historical Society in 1979, and in addition to his studies of Titanic and the White Star Line, he has been the Marketing Director and Collections Registrar for the Gilmore Car Museum for the past 14 years, and founded the Tucker Automobile Historical Collection and Library in 1999 and served as its director for 15 years.

Follis has also been interviewed by numerous TV, radio and print outlets, and has served as a consultant to automotive restorers, journalists, and television productions, including PBSThe Discovery NetworkHistory Channel and National Geographic Channel.

The Gilmore Car Museum, America’s premier automotive history destination, has collected not only cars, but amazing stories about some of the survivors and of course, their automotive connections. Armed with these interesting facts, visitors can explore the 90-acre campus and search out some of these cars and their significant stories.

Here are 12 things you probably didn’t know about the disaster and some of the cars that were a part of this historic event.

  • Over 60 passengers on the doomed liner were either from Michigan or immigrating here. These included the ultra-wealthy who booked 1st Class accommodations to those traveling steerage, also known as 3rd class. More than a dozen survivors of the disaster had ties to West Michigan.
  • When the survivors’ rescue ship arrived in New York, Helen and Dickinson Bishop, a wealthy honeymooning couple from Dowagiac, MI, wired their chauffeur to immediately drive their Lozier motor car—similar to example on display at the Gilmore Car Museum—to pick them up. The couple also owned a Mercer, Packard, and Electric. Rumors that the groom, Mr. Bishop, had dressed as a woman to secure his place in a lifeboat were already spreading in newspapers across the nation.
  • Washington Robeling II, whose family built the Brooklyn Bridge, started the Mercer Automobile Company and was onboard Titanic along with his company’s sales manager. Neither of them survived.
  • The small community of Dowagiac had another family that survived—Hanna Touma and her two young children, traveling as steerage passengers. Like most of the surviving 3rd class passengers arriving in New York on the rescue ship Carpathia, they had lost everything and had no one to meet them. To their surprise many were met by representatives of various aid societies and driven in automobiles—a completely new experience for most—to shelters. Most likely, they rode in a Ford Model T, Buickor Holsman.
  • Another little known fact is that a 1911 Packard Touring car had been crated and placed on the deck of the Carpathia as it sailed toward the Mediterranean. The car remained on deck during the heroic rescue of all 705 survivors.
  • While Dowagiac had two families survive the Titanic they never met—neither before nor after the disaster. Showing just how strong the separation of the classes was in 1912.
  • Ruth Blanchard, a long-time Benton Harbor elementary teacher, was just 12-years-old when she survived the sinking along with her mother and two siblings.
  • Michigan’s last survivor, Winifred Quick Van Tongerloo, died at the age of 98 in 2002 in East Lansing. Soon after the disaster eight-year-old “Winnie” joined her three-year-old sister Phyllis on the vaudeville stage as their mother Jane told the story of their rescue. They are said to have made appearances in Detroit, Battle Creek and Grand Rapids.
  • William Alden Smith, the Senator from Grand Rapids, MI launched the United States’ Senate Inquiry into the disaster. The results of his work eventually lead to laws and international treaties requiring enough lifeboats for all passengers.
  • Calvin Theological Seminary student Wm. B. Eerdmans first began selling books to support himself while attending college. In 1912, within a month of the disaster, he wrote and published a memorial book in Dutch on the sinking of Titanic. That launched Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company of Grand Rapids into becoming one of the nation’s oldest and most respected producers of religious books; they are still in business today, 100 years later.
  • Memorial Services were held in both Grand Haven and Muskegon for Captain E. G. Crosby. He was the owner of Crosby Transportation, a steamship line that operated between the ports of Milwaukee, Grand Haven and Muskegon. Mrs. Crosby drove a Rauch-Lang Electric as seen on display at the museum.
  • Former Kent County Sheriff Albert Carroll, a Deputy U.S. Marshal from Grand Rapids and the state’s former Game Warden were each sworn in as Deputy Sergeant at Arms of the U.S. Senate for the duration of the Inquiry. They assisted the investigation by serving subpoenas, conducting investigations and even stopped surviving crew members from returning home before their testimony could be heard.

The Gilmore Car Museum is the perfect place to see a large assortment of automobiles with ties to the Titanic, as well as a couple hundred more cars. The newly opened, state of the art, $5 million, 32,000 square foot Automotive Heritage Center is fashioned after an early 1900s factory, much like those of the Titanic’s era and houses many of the iconic cars of the same time period. The Museum and its 90-acre historic campus located near Kalamazoo, is in the heart of West Michigan, midway between Detroit and Chicago.