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Archives detail Pittsburghers who sailed on the Lusitania

On May 1, 1915, the RMS Lusitania of the Cunard Line began a Trans-Atlantic journey from New York to Liverpool, England, that would hasten America's entry into World War I and change the course of history.

On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was hit and sunk by a torpedo from a German submarine just off the coast of Ireland.

Of the 1,926 passengers and crew, 764 would survive, including 11 of the 139 Americans on board. More than 30 passengers were traveling from Pittsburgh to Europe for various reasons, from company business to returning to family. They each had a story that would forever be changed on that day.

The reasons for the attack 100 years ago are many, and conspiracy theories abound.

The most likely reason was revealed by neither the British nor the United States at the time.

Unknown to the public, the Lusitania was listed as an auxiliary warship. Along with its passengers, it carried more than 4 million rounds of rifle cartridges, 18 cases of fuses and 1,250 live shell cases, including munitions from East Pittsburgh's Westinghouse Plant.

The attack was not entirely unexpected. Germany had purchased ads in 50 U.S. newspapers before the attack, warning that cruise passengers should reconsider traveling through what was declared a war zone around the British Isles. Despite the warning, the Lusitania stayed its course, putting almost 2,000 lives in harm's way.

A few days after the sinking, John Braun, a chemist and former teacher at Holy Ghost College, now Duquesne University, made a startling revelation. He alleged the ship was carrying 250 barrels of anhydrous tetrachloride, a chemical weapon headed for France, according to “The Tragedy of the Lusitania,” by Frederick B. Ellis (published 1915). Braun, a German native, had been living in Pittsburgh for 20 years and worked for a company that produced such chemical weapons. There was no investigation of his claims.

Accusations and speculation were rampant in the aftermath of the attack.

Civil engineer Otto Post of the North Side was interned as an enemy alien for attempting to purchase a silver loving cup for the German commander who sank the Lusitania, according to the Reading Eagle and other newspapers in August 1917.

The list of “funders” justified the rounding up of other German Americans in Pittsburgh. It was then said that government agents discovered blueprints and documents related to the Lusitania. Post was denied parole and citizenship and was interned for the remainder of the war. Little is known of his fate.

Here are a few tales of Pittsburghers who sailed upon the Lusitania a century ago. The stories come from extensive searches of ledgers, logs and newspapers of the day.

The Smith family

Alfred and Elizabeth Smith of Wales had decided to start a new life in Ellwood City with their newborn daughter, Helen. Soon, Hubert was born. Joining them in Ellwood City were Alfred's sister, Cecilia, her husband, Hubert Owens, and two young children, Ronald and Reginald.

By 1915, the Smiths had decided to move back to Wales. Accompanying them on the Lusitania were Cecilia and her two sons, likely for a visit, because Hubert stayed in Ellwood City.

On May 7, 1915, the Smiths and their extended family returned to their cabins to change, leaving the children to play on deck. At 2:10 p.m., the torpedo struck. Elizabeth and Cecelia began a frantic search for their young children.

With no parents in sight, 6-year-old Helen approached a stranger for help, Canadian war correspondent Ernest Cowper. She begged of him, “Please, mister, will you take me with you?”

The ship rapidly going down and chaos all around, Cowper told Helen to wait for him. He ran down two decks in search of a lifebelt. When he returned, she was elated, “You came back to me, just as you promised!”

Running to the starboard side, he saw a lifeboat already lowering. He tossed Helen into the boat, where she was caught by Nellie Hampshire. He yelled to her, “She asked me to save her. Says she can't find her mother, father.”

Ordered by the first officer to board, Cowper jumped in behind Helen and helped push off the lifeboat, and they awaited rescue. As Hampshire and her sister held her, Helen looked up at them and said, “If I can't find my mummy and daddy, I will go with you ladies.”

After weeks of searching and waiting, Helen became a headline. “Everybody is sorry for me because my mummy and daddy have gone, but they're coming on another boat,” she declared.

They did not arrive. Her entire family, along with Cecilia Owens and her sons, had perished aboard the Lusitania. Eventually, her uncle claimed her and raised her out of the limelight. Cowper stayed in touch with her.

Helen had a family of her own, including a young daughter whom she named Elizabeth for her mother.

Margaret S. Kelly

Margaret S. Kelly was born in Ireland and moved to Pittsburgh with her family when she was 9. Her father became a naturalized citizen and began working for the Allegheny Foundry Co. The oldest of 10 children, Kelly felt a responsibility to the family, remaining at home into adulthood and contributing much of her salary to room and board.

At 22, she began working as a stenographer at the Pittsburg Lamp and Brass Co. After 12 years at the company, she requested a temporary leave to return to her childhood home in Ireland. Kelly, who had remained single, boarded the Lusitania in New York.

Traveling alone, she was a remarkably independent woman. She kept a ledger of her monthly expenses, accounting for every penny in the change purse she kept with her, along with a small Irish Bible and a pocketknife.

Those items were recovered along with her body when she perished in the waters of the Celtic Sea.

Michael Ward

Michael Ward also was born in Ireland. As the ship began to list, he remained aboard assisting women into lifeboats. When the lifeboats were not lowered, he told the women to head to the starboard side instead. Of the 22 lifeboats, only six launched safely. Ward went down with the ship.

Christopher Griffiths

Some heroes emerged from the waters to go on to serve their countries and the world.

Christopher Griffiths was 32 when he decided to leave Pittsburgh to return to England. He had been born in the south of Wales and felt a strong urge to fight in the war. Waiting for him in Liverpool was his wife, Maude, who was surely in his thoughts as the Lusitania began to sink. Griffiths survived.

Upon his arrival, he enlisted, serving as a lieutenant with the Royal Engineers Unit 123 Field Company. His unit was deployed seven months after the Lusitania disaster. He would earn several medals during his three years of service. His life was cut short in battle on Nov. 7, 1918.

Patrick Callan and Michael Dyer

As Patrick Callan of Dundalk, Ireland, stood with Pittsburgh native Michael Dyer gazing out to the Irish coast, he said to him, “You look like a man who has seen heaven.” The two retired to the dining room to share a beer. As Callan regaled Dyer with tales of Ireland, the torpedo struck. A mutual friend exclaimed, “That's these damnable German submarines, and I'll bet they have done for us at last.”

In 18 minutes, the ship had sunk. Dyer survived. As he swam in the waters, suffering from exposure and shock, he came across a familiar face floating dead in the waters. It was Callan.

Joe Wos is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.


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