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Book Tells Story of Family's Experience Aboard the Titanic

Titanic and Iceberg (Credit: Joel Kramer; Flickr)
Titanic and Iceberg (Credit: Joel Kramer; Flickr)

Marshfield’s Cherry Blossom Festival will be held Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Marshfield.  Special guests will include former first lady Laura Bush and her daughters Barbara Bush and Jenna Hager Bush.  But another guest will share the story of her great uncle’s experience aboard the Titanic—she’s written a book about it. 

Julie Williams’ book is called “A Rare Titanic Family.”  It’s about her great uncle, Albert Caldwell, who was 26-years-old when he, his wife, Sylvia, and baby survived the Titanic disaster.

The author knew her uncle well—he lived to be 91 and died when she was a senior in high school—and she loved to listen to him tell the story of the Titanic.

But in researching for her book, Williams learned that there was more to the story than her uncle had told her.  She found out that the Caldwells were fleeing from their jobs as missionaries in Bangkok and were being pursued by their employer.

"They were both teaching at a place called Bangkok Christian College, which is still there.  Uncle Al, as I called him, Albert was training to become the principal, although he hadn't gotten far in his training, his wife also taught there, and their first child was born while they were there, and from all accounts Sylvia had a very difficult pregnancy and was very ill, and he always said, 'we left because Siam,' as they called it then, 'did not agree with my wife's health,' and, indeed, I found a doctor's diagnosis that said they had to leave before the next hot season or she would lose her mind," she said.

The Caldwells ended up on the Titanic in their rush to get home.  When the ship hit the iceberg, the family at first didn’t realize anything bad had happened.  Sylvia had felt the impact and woke her husband who noticed that the ships’ engine had stopped.  He ran into the corridor where a sailor told him they’d hit a little iceberg but all was OK.  That soon changed.

"The sailor came by yelling, 'everybody on deck with their lifebelts, so they got up, they dressed in their oldest clothes, unfortunately, because they'd just bought all new clothes in Paris.  They left their life savings, which was $100 in American gold coins in their trunk because they couldn't open their trunk because the baby had been playing with the key, of course, and went up on deck and, you know, they considered it an exercise because everyone knew the Titanic was unsinkable," she said.

When the lifeboats began to be deployed, the family still wasn’t concerned.  Albert returned to the room to get another blanket for the baby and noticed the watertight doors were still open.  He knew they would be shut in an emergency.

But when he went on deck, a Titanic employee, one of several coal shovelers Albert had met earlier, shared the bad news.

"One of those men appeared at that moment right where they were standing, recognized Mr. Caldwell and said, 'if you value your life, get off this ship.  I've been below.  The hold is filling up with water, and this ship will go down,'" she said.

Albert and Sylvia headed for a lifeboat.  As he was handing the baby to his wife, an officer came by and told Albert to get in, too.  According to Williams, men were allowed in the lifeboats on one side of the ship.

Once he made it to safety and resumed his life, Williams says her uncle felt he owed it to the world to share his story.  He went on the Chautauqua circuit in 1912 and took every opportunity to tell the story throughout his life.

Now, his story continues to be told in Julie Williams’ book.

The author will receive the Ella Dickey Literacy Award for best work of history at Marshfield’s Cherry Blossom Festival Thursday (4/24) at Marshfield Christian Church.

Williams will speak about her uncle’s experience aboard the Titanic Friday (4/25) at 4.

To learn more about the festival, click here.