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From New York to Tragedy: Pier 54 and RMS Lusitania

Lusitania at Pier 54 in 1908

As the dawn of May 1, 1915, bathed the skyline of New York City in a golden hue, the bustling harbor was witness to an event that would soon echo through the annals of history—the departure from Pier 54 of the RMS Lusitania for her final voyage. For the passengers aboard, it was a journey of anticipation, adventure, and for some, foreboding.

Europe was at war. As World War I intensified and dragged on, the line between civilian and military targets had become increasingly blurred. Great Britain had the world’s largest navy and was using it to blockade Germany. Germany was using its growing fleet of U-boats to force its own blockade around Great Britain. The German government published in American newspapers the morning of Lusitania’s departure a warning to all who planned to journey on British ships.

German warning published in American newspapers in 1915

“Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

A decade before the outbreak of WWI, Lusitania and her sister Mauretania had both been financed by the British Admiralty under the condition the two ships could be used for military purposes during a time of war. However, while the British navy wearily eyed the growing might of a belligerent imperial Germany in the early 1900s, the Cunard Line, the two ships’ civilian owner, had agreed to the investment by the Admiralty in 1903 because its greatest threat at that moment was not Germany, but the American financier J.P. Morgan. Morgan was buying up as many Atlantic shipping companies as were willing to sell to him to form the shipping conglomerate International Mercantile Marine (IMM). When Cunard’s greatest British rival, White Star Line, was swallowed up by IMM it turned to the government for assistance. By 1907 Lusitania and Mauretania were complete and dominating the North Atlantic as speed queens. Mauretania would go on to hold the award for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, the Blue Ribband, for over twenty years.

Cartoon of J.P. Morgan from 1902 edition of Puck magazine

The two sister ships were the epitome of Edwardian industrial ambition combined with luxury hotel style. They wouldn’t be outdone in terms of luxury until White Star Line, part of IMM, launched Olympic in 1911 and the ill-fated Titanic in 1912.

First-class dining aboard Lusitania

While still docked at Pier 54, located at the ends of 12th and 13th Street, Lusitania not only boarded passengers but cargo as well, including 4,200 cases of Remington rifle cartridges and 1,250 cases of shrapnel shells and fuses, to be used in Britain’s war effort. Lusitania was still officially a civilian vessel, but was also being used to ferry American-made war materiel to Britain and her allies.

As the majestic vessel glided away from the harbor, it carried with it a microcosm of society—wealthy industrialists, adventurous travelers, hopeful immigrants, and families seeking reunion. The decks buzzed with activity, alive with the anticipation of the voyage ahead.

Yet, beneath the veneer of normalcy, the shadows of conflict lurked. Unbeknownst to many aboard,  Lusitania would soon find itself thrust into the maelstrom of World War I, becoming a casualty of geopolitical tensions and maritime warfare.

Sinking of Lusitania as depicted in London Illustrated News

On May 7, 1915, tragedy struck. Torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland, the RMS Lusitania sank in less than 20 minutes and carried nearly 1,200 innocent people down with her. The German U-boat captain had given no warning and knew the ship carried civilians when he ordered the torpedo to be fired. The sinking of the RMS Lusitania remains a controversial episode in the long brutal history of warfare, a ship full of civilian passengers attacked without warning but also carrying a cargo of bullets and other war materiel.

Final image taken of Lusitania departing New York on May 1, 1915

Lusitania serves as a poignant reminder of the fragility of human life amidst the cruel complexity of conflict. Today all the remains of Pier 54 is the metal framework of the entrance to the main pier building with the faded letters of Cunard White Star Line still visible (Cunard and White Star would merge in the 1930s). The pier now serves as a de facto memorial to two of the greatest maritime disasters on the North Atlantic. Just three years before Lusitania set sail from the pier on her ultimate journey, another Cunard ship, Carpathia, docked at Pier 54 carrying the survivors of Titanic.

Remain of entryway of Pier 54

Read more about the long and storied history of Greenwich Village’s waterfront, including more about Lusitania and Titanic, here. Browse images exploring how the waterfront changed in the second half of the twentieth century in our Image Archive.

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