TITANIC—the Los Angeles Connection
By Allan R. Ellenberger
April 10, 1912 was a day in which man had accomplished a great triumph—the launching of the largest ocean liner in history. She was long and luxurious and filled with the most lavish furniture that money could buy. She was fast—with three steam engines, each three stories high. Busily preparing for her maiden voyage, its objective was to carry the upper class and the wealthiest public figures that could be assembled. On board was Margaret Brown, self made woman who rose from rags to riches, John Jacob Astor, most likely the wealthiest man in the world. And among them was Walter Miller Clark, the son of J. Ross Clark, Vice President of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad.
The builders of the great ship wanted a name that meant grandeur, so they named her—Titanic. The sinking of the Titanic after striking an ice berg five days later has captivated the world for 100 years. Much has been written about the victims and the survivors—this is the story of one of them.
On the night of April 15, 1912, J. Ross Clark and his wife Miriam were quietly preparing to celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary the following day at their home in the West Adams District. Clark, the brother of Senator William A. Clark, the Montana copper mining magnate, was one of the pioneer industrialists of the Southwest. Along with his brother, Clark was the builder of the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad and one of the founders of the sugar beet industry in California.
At the time, Clark and his wife was looking after their two-year old grandson, who was also his name sake, J. Ross Clark II. The parents of young James Ross, Walter and Virginia McDowell Clark, were returning from what was a prolonged belated honeymoon to Europe. The opportunity arose to book their return passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic, a new ocean liner, and to be among the first to travel in the magnificent luxury of the ship.
The home of J. Ross Clark at 710 West Adams Boulevard (demolished)
Shortly after dinner, the Clarks received the first reports that the Titanic had struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and was possibly sinking. As the news spread, neighbors and friends gathered at the Clark house and every effort was made to make it appear that it was less serious than first reported. By the following day dispatches were received that passengers had been taken aboard the Virginia or the Baltic. This turned out to be false but it was followed by news that the Clarks might possibly have failed to take the Titanic. This hope too was dispelled when wires reported their names were on the list of Titanic’s passengers.
Late the following day, the Clarks were joined by their daughter Ella and her husband, H. C. Lee. Together they sat and talked of things more pleasant, and from time to time they received word over the telephone of the latest news. When the announcement was made that many of the women of the first and second-class cabins had been saved in the lifeboats, hopes for Virginia’s safety was renewed.
Elizabeth Boner and her cousin Walter Miller Clark, circa 1887
Walter Miller Clark and his wife, the former Virginia Estelle McDowell, were widely known in the Los Angeles social world. Walter was born in Butte, Montana and came to Los Angeles in 1892 with his parents. He was a 1907 graduate of Berkeley University, was member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and took a prominent part in student affairs. He had also survived the San Francisco Earthquake.
Virginia was born on May 30, 1890 in James County, Virginia to Samuel Kendrick McDowel and his wife Ada. The Clark’s were married in Cohoes, New York, a town on the Hudson on January 5, 1909. After the wedding, Clark brought his bride to Southern California. There he took over management of his fathers Los Alamitos Beet Sugar Factory, and for two years worked without a vacation
Once their son, James Ross reached an age that they could leave him, they decided to take a trip to Europe. Virginia’s mother, Ada (Addie) McDowell, arrived in Los Angeles to help care for the child along with a nurse.
Virginia McDowell Clark’s passport photo from 1924
They left Los Angeles about the first of February, 1912, and on February 14 they sailed from New York for the Mediterranean. They first went to Naples and after a tour of the region, travelled to Egypt before returning to the continent, stopping at the famous watering places, particularly in Paris. They wanted to return to Los Angeles in time for their son’s second birthday and at that time, the bookings for the Titanic were being made. They obtained their tickets—ticket number 13508 £136 15s 7d, for their voyage home.
While official records claim the Clarks boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg, Virginia later stated that they joined the ship at Southampton. That could be attributed to confusion and to the stress of the situation on her part. The couple was assigned to cabin 89 on C deck. The first few days of the voyage were uneventful; they experienced beautiful, calm weather and the sea was like glass.
On the evening of Sunday, April 14, Virginia was lounging on the promenade deck with Edith Rosenbaum when Walter apparently approached and asked her ‘permission’ to play cards in the Smoking Room. Howard Case and three gamblers joined him, one of whom was possibly fellow Los Angelino, George Brereton. Not long after, around 11:30 pm, Virginia decided to retire to her stateroom. As she prepared for bed, she felt a slight jar. Noticing that the engines had stopped, she looked out of her stateroom porthole and it seemed to her as if they were passing another ship. Her curiosity aroused, she dressed and went up to the Smoking Room looking for Walter.
“My husband, seeing me at the door of the smoking room, came out to me, apparently unconcerned” Virginia later recalled, “and said that they had also felt a slight shock, but had paid no attention to it.”
Walter assured her that an officer had told them that “all was well,” that some ice had been struck, but that they were on their way again. Everything apparently had been done in the way of closing the water-tight compartments which assured that there was no danger of any kind.
Virginia remained on deck for some fifteen or twenty minutes conversing with others while Walter rejoined his card game. Later, as she returned to her stateroom, she met a man coming up with a life preserver around him. She laughed and said: “Well, you must be a pretty nervous man.” He told her that an order had been given for all passengers to put on life preservers.
Virginia rushed back to the Smoking Room and told Walter that they had been ordered to go above with life preservers. They returned to their stateroom where Walter removed his evening dress and put on an ordinary suit and heavy underwear; Virginia did likewise. They took their heavy overcoats and Virginia took her furs, also two life preservers and whatever valuables they could pick up.
“We went to the main deck,” Virginia said, “where as yet no attempt had been made to man the boats, and the discipline seemed to be perfect. No panic prevailed among the passengers. We conversed in groups on the deck. I remember I was with Mr. and Mrs. Straus, Mr. and Mrs. Astor, my husband and some others when an officer approached and said that, while they felt no alarm for the safety of the ship, it was thought best that the women and children be put aboard the lifeboats. This was perhaps an hour after we struck the iceberg. Even then, there was no rush for the lifeboats. I saw two or three boats lowered which were filled with as many men as women. The rest of us, however, remained on deck, assisting in loading these boats with women and children and women of both second-class and steerage passengers.”
The women refused to enter the lifeboats, stating that they would wait and go with their husbands later. At this point Walter asked Virginia if she had her purse. When she replied that she didn’t he went to their stateroom to get one for her. When he returned wearing his lifejacket, he handed Virginia some money. “We may be separated and you may need this,” he told her. A while later Second Officer Charles Lightoller approached them and said it was imperative that all women leave the ship and that the men could not leave until the women had been provided for. The men also insisted and Walter helped Virginia, who was now sobbing, into the lifeboat.
“I was placed in a lifeboat,” Virginia recalled, “along with Mrs. Astor and Mrs. Hays and about forty others, among them being the ship’s quartermaster and a sailor named McCarthy. I must particularly praise the brave and unselfish actions of the latter after leaving the Titanic.
“At the time of our leaving in the lifeboat, the men of our party seemed unconcerned. Mrs. Straus absolutely refused to leave her husband. Mr. Astor, just before our boat was lowered, asked permission to accompany his wife (she was pregnant), but was refused.”
“No men are allowed in these boats until the women are loaded first,” Lightoller told him. Astor made no protest whatever and stepped back.
“What is the boat number,” he asked Lightoller.
“Number 4,” the officer replied. Astor rejoined Clark and the two of them, together with Major Butt and others assisted in filling the lifeboats with passengers.
Lifeboat 4, on which many famous Titanic families survived, including Madeline Astor, the Carters, the Ryerson’s, Mrs. Thayer and Mrs. Widener, was one of the first lifeboats to launch and yet was one of the last to hit the water. At one point Lightoller refused to allow young Jack Ryerson aboard. Mr. Ryerson, who had lost his eldest son only a few days before, was not about to lose Jack. “Of course that boy goes with his mother. He is only 13 years old,” Ryerson insisted.
Lucile Carter and her daughter were about to enter the lifeboat when at the last minute, her eleven-year-old son, William joined them. However Chief Second Stewart George Dodd insisted that “no more boys” be allowed. In addition, Lightoller would not allow William’s Airedale to enter the boat. When William began to cry, John Jacob Astor reassured William that he would take care of the dog. Mrs. Carter put a hat on her son’s head and together they boarded lifeboat 4. When last seen, Astor was still holding the dog’s leash.
All through the ordeal, Walter Clark remained cool and collected. “I will not leave the ship until all the women and children have been cared for,” he told Virginia. These would be his last words to her.
“Neither of us thought that there was any danger of our not meeting again,” Virginia said. “I know from the way he bid me good-bye that he felt no apprehension and fully expected to join me later. He did not kiss me good-bye, nor did he even say good-bye. I knew he had no more idea of the possibility of his being lost than had I.”
Lifeboat 4 was lowered into the Atlantic at 1:55 a.m. As several of the women grabbed the oars and rowed away, the Titanic, illuminated from stem to stern, was listing badly on the port side. Seeing that they had room on board for fifteen or more people, some of the women insisted on returning to the steamer to pick up survivors. At that suggestion many women became hysterical and tried to discourage them from doing so, even going so far as to obstruct the rowers in their efforts. There was a great deal of commotion in the lifeboat at that time.
“I cannot say too much for the bravery of Mrs. Astor in this connection,” Virginia recalled. “She among others insisted that the boat be returned to the steamer. All this time the lights on board the steamer were gleaming brilliantly. She was sinking, however, very fast and as we approached her, the Titanic sank, followed by two almost simultaneous explosions. There was little or no suction felt as the steamer went down, owing, perhaps, to the fact that she sank prow foremost.”
Terrible, anguished cries arose on all sides of the lifeboat and continued for an hour. It was, as witnesses claimed, like a “great chorus chanting a refrain of death with wild persistency.” At times the cries died out and then the refrain would begin again, more horribly and more desolately. The shrieks pursued them as they rowed about the scene of the disaster all night. Then one by one the cries ceased and only the noise of the sea remained.
During that bitter morning, Lifeboat 4 picked up eight men out of the water, two of whom subsequently died of exposure and one lost his mind. There was nothing in the way of stimulants in the lifeboat with which to revive these men, but the women worked over them almost all night.
At 4:00 a.m., the Carpathia arrived at the scene and took on the survivors from Titanic’s lifeboats.
“I cannot say too much for the noble assistance we received from the crew and passengers aboard the Carpathia,” Virginia said. “Everything possible was done for our comfort and care of those who had suffered from exposure.”
The Carpathia cruised about the area of the wreck for about eight hours, but found no further survivors or other evidences of the disaster. The California came in sight and lay alongside them, and on the Carpathia’s departure by signals promised to remain for forty-eight hours near the scene. Virginia still held hope that Walter would somehow be found alive.
Titanic survivors resting on the deck of the Carpathia
The ship manifest for the Carpathia listing the Titanic survivors that were rescued.
In Los Angeles, J. Ross Clark and his family were receiving mixed reports. Messages received the morning of April 17 denied that their son had been saved. Previous reports that he had been rescued were deemed to be false. Eventually Virginia was able to send a telegram to her mother: “Safe on Carpathia Arrive New York Thursday Will Cable.”
The Carpathia arrived in New York with the Titanic’s survivors on Thursday evening, April 18, 1912. Virginia was met at the dock by a family friend, Dr. John Stewart Tanner, and her uncle, Senator W. A. Clark, Sr. who wired his brother that she was “as well as expected. Says to tell you she has some hope of his (Walter’s) rescue. Will wire important news later.” Senator Clark escorted her to the Knickerbocker Hotel where she was joined by her sister-in-law.
On Saturday Virginia boarded the train to Los Angeles. On Tuesday she arrived in Salt Lake City and was met by Walter’s cousin, William Andrews Clark, Jr. and his wife, who would escort her to Los Angeles. At the Utah Hotel, Clark insisted that Virginia could not be seen by newspapermen because of her condition.
“My cousin Walter,” Clark told reporters, “after having assisted his wife to one of the lifeboats of the Titanic, went back to his fate with the other brave men on the great liner. Because of the distressing impressions left upon the mind of his widow it is absolutely impossible for her to accord an interview to any person. It’s barely possible that during the trip from here to Los Angeles my wife and myself may be able to get from our cousin a recital of the harrowing scenes through she passed at the wreck of the Titanic; but I doubt this very much. “
On that brief trip on the Los Angeles Limited, Virginia was able to dictate her experience aboard the Titanic. It was released to the press on her return and portions of it would be printed in newspapers worldwide.
The train carrying Virginia and the Clarks arrived in Los Angeles more than two hours late. J. Ross Clark was waiting in an automobile at the Ninth Street crossing (now East Olympic Blvd.), along with Henry Lee, to take Virginia back to their home at 710 West Adams Boulevard.
The former 9th Street Crossing (now Olympic Blvd.) where the Clarks, including Titanic survivor, Virginia McDowell Clark, disembarked from the train.
Finally at home, Virginia was happy to see her small son but openly mourned and accepted the death of her husband.
J. Ross Clark, hoping that his son’s body may be found, began construction of a family mausoleum at Hollywood Cemetery. However, the body of Walter Miller Clark, if found, was never identified.
The J. Ross Clark Mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. This is the final resting place for Titanic survivor Virginia McDowell Clark Tanner.
Clark built his family mausoleum hoping that his son’s body would be found.
In his memory a cenotaph was installed in the rear of the Clark Mausoleum. It reads: WALTER MILLER CLARK, LOST AT SEA, SS TITANIC, 1884 – 1912.
Walter Miller Clark cenotaph in the J Ross Clark Mausoleum
In 1937, Walter’s mother, Miriam A. Clark donated the land and funds to build the Walter Miller Memorial Church in Long Beach, California. The building was dedicated on October 10, 1937. Today the church is known as the Lakewood Village Community Church.
Virginia McDowell Clark remarried shortly after being rescued and died in 1958. She is also interred in the J. Ross Clark Mausoleum in an unmarked crypt near her son, James Ross Clark II. She is one of at least three Titanic survivors buried in the Los Angeles area.
In a future article I will explore the life of Virginia McDowell Clark whose drama did not end with the Titanic’s sinking.