This Day in History: RMS Lusitania

The Lusitania at Pier 54, 1907. Photo via MaritimeQuest.

The Lusitania at Pier 54, 1907. Photo via MaritimeQuest.

On this day in 1907, the RMS Lusitania docked at Pier 54 on the Greenwich Village waterfront following its maiden transatlantic voyage. Pier 54, located at West 13th Streets, was the New York home for Cunard Line, a British shipping company.  The Lusitania docked safely that day, but eight years later the ship was sunk by a German U-boat during World War I, helping to precipitate the United States’ entrance into the war.The Lusitania was built for speed, a way for the Cunard Line to succeed in the competitive North Atlantic trade. The British government provided the Cunard Line a loan of £2.6 million for its construction as well as that of the Lusitania’s sister ship, the Mauretania, to ensure Britain’s continued dominant role in the North Atlantic. As a condition for funding, the company agreed to keep both ships in a state of war-readiness, and to carry mail.

The RMS Lusitania at Pier 54 in 1907. Photo via the Library of Congress.

The RMS Lusitania at Pier 54 in 1907. Photo via the Library of Congress.

On its first voyage, the Lusitania traveled at 23.99 knots westbound and 23.61 knots eastbound, earning the record for fastest passenger liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The Lusitania and the Mauretania would trade this honor back and forth until September of 1909, when the Mauretania surpassed that record and held it until 1929.

Accounts of the Lusitania note accommodations for first class passengers were the most luxurious, spacious, and comfortable interiors afloat at the time. It has been noted that the Cunard Line also made efforts to ensure that third class accommodations, while plain, were spacious, comfortable, and humane.

The New York Times reports on the sinking of the Lusitania, 1915.

The New York Times reports on the sinking of the Lusitania, 1915.

The Lusitania left New York from Pier 54 on its last journey on May 1, 1915. There was much talk about the safety of the voyage and about its possible target by German U-boats before it sailed. There was debate at the time as to whether the ship was carrying war munitions, but most scholars today agree that it most likely carried bullets, fuses, and shells. The sinking claimed the lives of 1,198 of Lusitania’s passengers and crew, with only 761 surviving. Among the dead were 128 American citizens. The sinking, which didn’t immediately propel the US into the war, certainly influenced public opinion in favor of it.

Today, Pier 54 is covered in asphalt and completely empty except for an entrance archway, which still bears, if you look closely, the inscription for the Cunard-White Star Line (the two shipping lines merged in 1934). For many, Pier 54 is known as the pier where the RMS Carpathia brought survivors of the Titanic in 1912. You can read more about the development of the pier, its connection to the Titanic, and the development of the Greenwich Village waterfront in this past Off the Grid post.

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Sheryl

Sheryl Woodruff was GVSHP’s Senior Director of Operations until December 2014.