Sam McManis roams the region to find where you want to go

Discoveries: Sonoma far from Titanic sinking, but there's an exhibit

04/15/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:35 AM

World's Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg

– Satirical headline in "The Onion"

SONOMA – Landlocked as it is, this verdant, wine-soaked town surrounded by lines of vines seems an odd location for a museum exhibit commemorating the sinking of the Titanic, which happened 100 years ago today.

Then again, there are Titanic museums in Dearborn, Mich.; Branson, Mo.; Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; and, of course, Las Vegas.

So why not Sonoma?

When Depot Park Museum board member Carol Page approached her fellow Sonoma Valley Historical Society members about devoting a few display cases to one the world's most famous transportation disasters – which the Onion winkingly called a "representation of man's hubris" – she figured it'd be a tough sell.

Would it be, to use an adjective that first came into vogue in 1912, a titanic disaster?

"I kind of pushed the envelope with this," Page said. "I wasn't sure it was going to work, since it doesn't have a whole lot to do with Sonoma."

True. Depot Park normally devotes itself, in part, to preserving history from another mode of transportation – railroads – in addition to the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, which we all learned about in grade school and then quickly forgot.

But Page's deep and abiding affection for all things Titanic won out, and visitors to the museum are treated to a small but fascinating display of Titanic lore. None of the original salvaged relics is displayed, but reproductions of photographs and plates and flatware and a scale model of the doomed luxury liner captured the locals' imagination.

Originally scheduled to run only through the end of April, Sonoma's Titanic success will remain until the end of May.

Page, for one, is not surprised that people are so smitten with the story. And not just because pop culture embraced Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the over-the-top James Cameron movie of 1997. (A cautionary aside: Going to this exhibit will inevitably lead to a hideous "earworm" infection, namely Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On.")

"I think it's because the Titanic was called 'virtually' unsinkable, and yet " Page said. "And there were so many well-known and wealthy people mixed with steerage people on the trip. That's interesting. It was kind of an example of the Gilded Age and also the Industrial Revolution – you know, look what we can make and build."

The exhibit caught the attention of at least two Titanic buffs in Sonoma County, who donated objects, books and artwork after the show opened. One was Peter Babcock, who loaned Page a weathered, half-crumpled page of the Boston Globe from April 16, 1912 – the day after the tragedy.

The Globe's coverage, based on this salvaged page, was surprisingly understated, though it did feature a bold, all-caps headline about the notables of the day who perished, including "celebutante" John Jacob Astor IV.

Equally intriguing is how Babcock came to acquire the Globe page he loaned to the museum.

"A long time ago, (Babcock) was in Falmouth, Mass., tearing a house down, a job when he was in college," Page said. "It was a hard, sweaty job in demolition. And, all of a sudden, he said, 'Oh, stop! There's a picture of the Titanic in the insulation of the house.' Just by chance he found it."

But most of the memorabilia and historic objects come from Page's personal collection. She's no nautical historian, just a curious type who lets her interests lead where they may.

And, in this case, it led to Falmouth in 1986. Page and husband Larry were just vacationing, taking in the fall colors in New England, when somebody casually mentioned that they should make a detour and check out the fuss at the waterfront, where Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researchers had found Titanic wreckage.

She was hooked. Since then, the Pages have visited Halifax, Nova Scotia, where many casualties washed up and were buried, as well as the Molly Brown House Museum (you know, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown") in Denver, where Page's sister happens to volunteer.

The cemetery trip is marked in the Sonoma collection by a photograph Page took of the gravestone of one J. Dawson, a mechanic on the vessel. Nope, it's just an urban myth that he inspired DiCaprio's hunky character, Jack Dawson.

It's impossible to look at the photos of lifeboats and unearthed candelabras and fine china without thinking about Cameron's "Titanic." Page is not immune.

"I'm of two minds about it," she said. "(Cameron) did everything actually to scale, re-created the china they had on board. He was very historically accurate. That was good.

"But it was such a sappy story. The heart of the sea and all that. I suppose you had to have more of a fictional story in Hollywood."

So, if Cameron was able to take some liberties in his Titanic opus, so could the Depot Museum. The board simply justified putting a non-Sonoma subject in a Sonoma museum by searching and stretching for a local connection – any connection.

It eventually found one.

"Let me show you," said office manager Sandi Hansen.

She led me past a school and kitchen from the area's pioneer days to a telegraph machine mounted against a wall.

"We teach the schoolkids about the Morse code used on our telegraph machine," Hansen said. "So, when the ship sunk apparently the telegrapher or whatever he was called onboard was too busy doing Morse code for the first-class passengers, so it was a little while before they sent the SOS out that the ship was in trouble.

"OK, it's a far cry from a connection, but it's what we've got."

About This Blog

Sam McManis has covered travel and recreation at The Sacramento Bee since 2011, criss-crossing California to report on interesting, humorous, unexpected and sometimes truly strange stories. When he's not driving all over the state for work, Sam likes to run on the many mountain trails California boasts. Reach him at or 916-321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis

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