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updated: 4/15/2012 7:03 AM

From despair to elation: A suburban Titanic story

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  • This image was made as Alice Johnson visited family in Finland. At bottom left is Alice's son Harold. Above right, Alice is holding daughter Eleanor in the doorway. Alice and the children would have left for home before the Titanic sailed, but the kids got chickenpox and couldn't travel. The family had stayed nine months in Finland, and also visited Oscar's family in Sweden. This photo was mailed home to husband and father Oscar in St. Charles.

      This image was made as Alice Johnson visited family in Finland. At bottom left is Alice's son Harold. Above right, Alice is holding daughter Eleanor in the doorway. Alice and the children would have left for home before the Titanic sailed, but the kids got chickenpox and couldn't travel. The family had stayed nine months in Finland, and also visited Oscar's family in Sweden. This photo was mailed home to husband and father Oscar in St. Charles.
    COURTESY OF DEBRA SHUMAN

  • Main Street in St. Charles is pictured in this 1910 image. The Fox River can be seen in the foreground.

      Main Street in St. Charles is pictured in this 1910 image. The Fox River can be seen in the foreground.
    COURTESY OF THE ST. CHARLES HERITAGE CENTER

  • Eleanor Johnson is pictured in Finland for her 1-year-old portrait. Alice Johnson sent this portrait of her daughter home to St. Charles to her husband Oscar. Alice and Eleanor, along with Harold, survived the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912.

      Eleanor Johnson is pictured in Finland for her 1-year-old portrait. Alice Johnson sent this portrait of her daughter home to St. Charles to her husband Oscar. Alice and Eleanor, along with Harold, survived the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912.
    COURTESY OF DEBRA SHUMAN

  • Alice Berg Johnson is pictured in her 20s. She was 26 when she and her two children survived the sinking of the Titanic.

      Alice Berg Johnson is pictured in her 20s. She was 26 when she and her two children survived the sinking of the Titanic.
    COURTESY OF DEBRA SHUMAN

  • Eleanor Johnson and her brother Harold of St. Charles are pictured soon after they survived the sinking of the Titanic.

      Eleanor Johnson and her brother Harold of St. Charles are pictured soon after they survived the sinking of the Titanic.
    COURTESY OF DEBRA SHUMAN

  • In this April 10, 1912, file photo, the luxury liner Titanic departs Southampton, England, on her maiden Atlantic voyage en route to New York City. Five days into her journey, the ship struck an iceberg and sank, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,500 people.

      In this April 10, 1912, file photo, the luxury liner Titanic departs Southampton, England, on her maiden Atlantic voyage en route to New York City. Five days into her journey, the ship struck an iceberg and sank, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,500 people.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • The Johnsons are pictured in the Elgin Daily Courier on April 17, 1912, and listed as "probably lost" in the Titanic disaster. The Elgin Daily News of the same date suggested they had died.

      The Johnsons are pictured in the Elgin Daily Courier on April 17, 1912, and listed as "probably lost" in the Titanic disaster. The Elgin Daily News of the same date suggested they had died.
    COURTESY OF GAIL BORDEN PUBLIC LIBRARY

  • Oscar Johnson, a bartender in St. Charles, is pictured in this undated portrait. Johnson's wife and two young children survived the sinking of the Titanic.

      Oscar Johnson, a bartender in St. Charles, is pictured in this undated portrait. Johnson's wife and two young children survived the sinking of the Titanic.
    COURTESY OF DEBRA SHUMAN

  • Video: Elginite Survived Titanic

  • Video: Titanic newsreels from 1912

 
 

The sinking of Titanic 100 years ago captured the world's interest. Fox Valley residents, too, were touched by the tragedy. A St. Charles mother and her two children -- who had been visiting relatives in Europe -- had secured tickets for the ship's maiden voyage to return to their husband and father, Oscar Johnson. This account, compiled from a variety of archival sources, was constructed with help from Debra Shuman, daughter-in-law of Eleanor Johnson Shuman. Debra Shuman, formerly of St. Charles, offered these accounts from Eleanor of what happened on Titanic and of their family history.

"I will not write you again because I will see you before another letter can reach you. We will be in Chicago April 18. We have secured third-class passage on the White Star liner Titanic and sail from Southampton Wednesday, the tenth."

Alice Johnson's letter to her husband, Oscar, in St. Charles. The letter arrived within days of the Titanic striking an iceberg and sinking off the coast of Newfoundland in the early hours of Monday, April 15, 1912. It would be days before the world would learn the magnitude of loss -- more than 1,500 people died, while just more than 700 survived on lifeboats

• • •

Newspapers inaccurately reported on April 15, 1912, that all passengers aboard Titanic were rescued safely. In a news flash issued April 17, the White Star Line claimed all women aboard were saved but most of the men died. Word on the 18th simply acknowledged a great loss of life.

Oscar Johnson, 30, grew more confused and upset as each day passed with increasingly awful accounts and no word on the fate of his wife, Alice, and children Harold, 4, and Eleanor, 18 months. Despair and anxiety consumed Oscar as he read and reread the letter from Alice, hoping against hope his worst fears would not be realized. Oscar looked at the portrait of Eleanor that Alice had mailed home and wondered if he would ever see his family again.

A year earlier, Alice Johnson and her two young children left for Finland to visit her ailing father. Even though Alice's father died as she began her journey, Oscar encouraged Alice to complete the trip and visit with her family. As his wife and children traveled, Oscar lovingly furnished and decorated a new home along South Third Street as a surprise for them upon their return to St. Charles.

• • •

In 1912, St. Charles was a developing Midwestern town. Commerce and the promise of progress came by way of the railroad and dirt roads, bringing city folk to enjoy resort homes and communities dotting the landscape along the Fox River.

And while resort homes were prominent, industry was the lifeblood of full-time St. Charles residents.

Cable pianos were assembled at a plant on the west bank of the river, while a community of Belgian immigrants staffed the Moline Malleable Iron Co. factory near what is Dean Street today. Borden's Condensed Milk Co. provided jobs in the canning industry, and Glenn Manufacturing supplied plumbing and steam equipment for the region.

A severe Midwestern cold snap lingered from December 1911 through February 1912. Mid-April brought temperatures in the mid-60s, and residents again began dreaming of a picnic near the pavilion at Pottawatomie Park or a canoe venture on the Fox River.

Perhaps the talk of the town during the week before the Titanic disaster was about the outcome of the April 9 primary election. Or maybe it was about Chicago baseball players preparing for the April 11 season opener. Headlines on April 12 announced a mysterious fire at Geneva City Hall, a few miles south of St. Charles. A jail inmate died, locked in his cell while the structure burned.

Days later, a much bigger story would dominate the headlines. And the residents of St. Charles would rally around one of their own, personally affected by the tragedy that had played out half a continent away.

• • •

In the days immediately after the Titanic disaster, physicians and close friends consoled Oscar Johnson as he awaited word of his family's fate. The night of Thursday, April 18, he was visiting his good friend John J. Daly. Oscar Johnson was in the lounge at his friend's home when a rap on the door at 1:30 a.m. startled him.

A Western Union Telegraph courier had traveled from Geneva to give Oscar two urgent messages in the early hours of Friday, April 19.

The first: "Wife and children safe. Are at St. Luke's Hospital. White Star Line agency, N.Y. City."

The second: "Oscar Johnson, St. Charles. We are safe and sound. Don't worry. Will be home soon. Alice."

Oscar wept.

After dawn broke a few hours later, Oscar hurried downtown to share his good news. He scoured newspapers for the latest stories in the wake of survivors arriving in New York aboard the liner Carpathia. He read courageous stories of survival and saw the list of hundreds lost. He began to learn the details of the most famous Titanic passengers and their tales of survival and loss, and he was thankful his family was spared the icy deaths described so vividly.

• • •

Oscar could not wait for his family's arrival in St. Charles, and he hastily made plans to borrow money for train tickets east to reunite with his loved ones and to bring them home.

Community members would hear nothing of Oscar borrowing the money and gathered $107 to pay for the trip. Upon leaving town, he offered thanks in a letter published in the Aurora Daily Beacon News on Saturday, April 20.

"I wish to most sincerely thank my friends and benefactors who so generously contributed to defray my expenses to New York City, to meet my wife and family, recently rescued from the ill-fated steamer Titanic. I desire to thank all who have sympathized with me and aided me in my recent hours of trial. I thank you all. -- Oscar W. Johnson."

• • •

Once Oscar Johnson arrived in New York, he was reunited with his family at St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighborhood. Alice and the children had been through incredible stress but were holding up well. Alice got laryngitis while aboard the lifeboat with icy water up to her ankles. When she and the children first arrived at Pier 54 in New York on the of Thursday, April 18, she was unable to communicate clearly with port authorities. Harold, who was unscathed during Titanic's sinking and the subsequent trip to New York, showed his father a split chin he had gotten from monkeying around on a hospital bed frame.

Oscar was amazed Alice had managed to see their family to safety.

What was even more amazing was the harrowing story of rescue she would tell him on the way home to St. Charles.

• Resources used in assembling this story included Daily Herald archives, the St. Charles Heritage Center, Aurora and Elgin library newspaper archives, the book "Titanic -- An Illustrated History," and transcripts of a British disaster inquiry. Debra Shuman now lives in Arizona.

Coming Monday: Back in the Fox Valley, Alice Johnson tells the dramatic story of how the family survived.

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