Rescue ship for Titanic


The arrival of S.S. Carpathia after the disaster


Carpathia began service for the Cunard line in 1903. At 540 feet in length and with a speed of 14 knots, it was roughly average for North Atlantic passenger steamships introduced that year, but well below Cunard’s then largest and swiftest, the Campania and Lucania, which had been deployed already a decade earlier. Carpathia was built by the Swan & Hunter company of Wallsend, Newcastle which also constructed Cunard liners Ultonia (1899, 13 knots) Ivernia (1900, 15 knots), and Mauretania (1907, 25 knots). See also here. 14 knots in speed enabled Carpathia to reach New York from Liverpool in 9 days (based on 12 voyages completed on that route in 1903 and 1904, Voyage Database). From Austro-Hungarian port of Fiume (present-day Rijeka, Croatia), the journey to New York (60% longer in terms of nautical miles) took about twice as long in days, depending on how many ports of call stops were made along the way (based on three such voyages in 1904).


Ship size

Sources disagree slightly as to the gross tonnage of Carpathia. Figures given range from 13,155 to 16,003 tons. A plausible interpretation (although not documented) is suggested by the Cunardshipwrecks website: “The original tonnage was 13,555 but this was later increased to 13,603 when changes were made to the passenger accommodation,” because there is agreement among the sources that the passenger capacity was expanded in 1905 (see, for example, Bonsor). To expand the number of berths to that extent (from 204 second to 300 first and second, and from 1,500 steerage to 2250 steerage), it seems likely that some increase in the physical space occurred, in addition to reconfiguration of existing space.


Route, ship name

There are also varying interpretations as to which route Carpathia was originally intended for use on. McCart (p. 42) says the ship “was designed primarily for the Hungarian emigrant service between Fiume and New York.” Isherwood concurs, in part: “The Carpathia is stated to have been built for the Boston service, though her name and the circumstances [of the Fiume, Hungary route starting in 1903] suggest that the Mediterranean run was also well in mind.”


The latter suggestion is interesting, but whether Cunard named the ship Carpathia because it already then intended to deploy it on an Adriatic route that might attract many migrants from the region of the Carpathian mountains depends on (a) when the ship was named, and (b) when Cunard made a definite decision to develop that route. Neither date is known exactly. In any case, however, Cunard had by then a well over twenty year tradition of deploying new ships in pairs (sisters), and naming them after (often close to each other) Roman Empire place names, such as Etruria and Umbria (Italy) or Saxonia and Ivernia (British Isles), although not necessarily because those vessels would carry people originating in the regions denoted by those names. It would seem somewhat odd, however, for it to have been a complete coincidence that Carpathia, and two immediately following North Atlantic vessels acquired by Cunard (Slavonia and Pannonia), were given names of regions in western and eastern Hungary connected by rail to the Northeast Adriatic.


Here are a few dates that are known:


The U.K. cabinet approval of the government subsidy that gave a financial underpinning to the opening of the Fiume route came on August 7, 1902: one day after Carpathia was launched. Typically ships were “christened” (named) when launched (rolled into the water). If Carpathia’s name was chosen in early August, 1902, and with the Fiume route in mind, this would seem more like hope than design.


The Pannonia was launched in March, 1903. But this was probably before Cunard struck any sort of deal with Hungary over a Fiume service. Any hopes then, of Pannonian passengers embarking on a ship of that name, in the nearest port to Pannonia, are unlikely to have yet developed into firm plans. Several times in the course of 1903 (Puskas, p. 99, cited in Keeling, p. 102), the Hungarians approached Cunard’s German rivals, and only after those negotiations failed did Cunard successfully arrange a deal in Hungary. Cunard announced a new service from Fiume in August of 1903, one week after formal U.K. parliamentary ratification of the subsidy contract of arranged with the U.K. cabinet August 1902 (see above, and Keeling, pp. 79-80, 99).


The Slavonia, launched for a different company under a different name, was purchased by Cunard in 1904, after Cunard’s Fiume service started (at the end of 1903). The ship departed from the builder’s wharf for Fiume on March 17, the exact day that Cunard and Hungary’s deal was signed in writing. There is no mystery about intended routes here. Slavonia was used exclusively on the Fiume-New York route until its shipwreck in 1909. (Bonsor, Keeling, p. 99).


Migrants to America via Adriatic ports

Regardless of intended route deployments, sources agree that Carpathia, unusually for Cunard, was originally designed to carry only second and steerage class passengers (no first class). After its maiden voyage on the Liverpool-Boston route, in May of 1903, Carpathia then made 13 voyages between Liverpool and New York, accommodating second and steerage class passengers only, and carrying nearly 15 thousand west to the U.S. during 1903-1905. A few Fiume route voyages were interspersed between those Liverpool-New York crossings. (Voyage database).


After 1905, Carpathia operated almost exclusively on the Fiume-Trieste-Gibraltar-New York route, and carried passengers in all three classes. From 1906 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the traffic (all classes, and both east and west) on that route totalled nearly 141 thousand (Voyage database).


Rescuing survivors of Titanic

It was on this route that Carpathia’s most famous voyage occurred in 1912. On its first Adriatic-bound departure from New York that year, Carpathia left for the Mediterranean on April 11  but first rescued surviving passengers of the Titanic, departing again from New York for Trieste and Fiume only on April 19. The remarkably swift and smooth rescue operation has been widely described. The speed and skill with which it was carried out is testimony not only to the talents and hard work of Captain Rostron and the crew, but also to the adaptability of the accommodations on the vessel.


First World War

Carpathia was used in World War I as a troop carrier, and sunk by a German submarine attack in the final year of the war.


Principal sources (citation details here):