Guest Author - Candyce H. Stapen
The Titanic Museum Attraction, Pigeon Forge, TN, is a find. Shaped like the front half of the fated ship, the building looms over the parkway, forever foundering on its faux iceberg. “Tacky,” we assume, but we’re wrong. The museum delivers a tasteful retelling of the tragic story.
The Titanic Museum Attraction anchors in Pigeon Forge, gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as in Branson, MO. Neither city harbors any connection to the ship’s construction or crew. Both popular locales draw many travelers and when they need a respite from hiking in Pigeon Forge or seeing shows in Branson, they can find out about the legendary ship.
“People want to be entertained and also educated,” says Mary Kellogg, co-owner of the facility along with her husband John Joslyn, who led the 1987 expedition to the actual Titanic’s wreck site. The “edutainment” begins when we board. Staff, attired in period, long black skirts and white aprons, guide us through the embarkation process, which includes receiving information about an actual titanic passenger. Ours is 13 year-old, Madeleine Mellinger who sails second-class. At the end of the experience we learn her fate.
From the exhibits and audio tapes (geared to adults and to children), we discover how little time it took for the “unsinkable,” crown jewel of the British White Star Line to disappear beneath the waves. The vessel struck the iceberg, April l4, at 11:40p.m. By April 15, 2:18 a.m., the deck, tilted at a 45-degreen angle and split in two. By 2:20 am the ship plunged to the bottom of the frigid North Atlantic.
Along with artifacts and replicas, uniformed crew and interactive exhibits relate ship life. We learn facts as well as stories of the people onboard. Mary Kellogg thinks of the facility as a memorial that honors both the survivors and the victims.
In the boiler room, George, a member of the “black gang,” named for the soot covering their faces, tells us that he hoists 20-pound shovelfuls of coal into the belly of the furnace for four hours, followed by four hours of rest before repeating the cycle again. We pick up a nearby shovel. Even empty it feels heavy in our hands, giving us a new appreciation of George’s weighty task.
After ascending a recreated section of the grand staircase, complete with elaborate carvings and statues, we “visit” the sitting area of the stateroom occupied by Isidor Strauss, co-owner of Macy’s, and his wife Ida. The first-class finery features wood-paneling, upholstered chairs and an electric fireplace. Women and children were allotted space in the too few lifeboats. When Mr. Strauss urged his wife of 38 years to climb into the lifeboat, she refused, saying “Where you go, I go.” Ida gave her seat to her maid, covered the woman’s shoulders with an elaborate fur coat.
Such personal tales make the experience special. At the attraction’s end in the Memorial Room, we find out what happened to “our “passenger,” the one whose information card we carry. Much to our relief, Madeleine survived.