Cape Race

Cape Race on the southern tip of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula figures prominently in almost every re-telling or depiction of Titanic’s final hours.  Most people who have followed the Titanic’s history know that the doomed ship was in near constant communication with Cape Race on its Marconi wireless prior to hitting the iceberg as passengers passed along greetings and business messages to folks on land all over North America.  Ice warnings were ignored by the Titanic’s Captain Smith. Soon after, Cape Race was coordinating the rescue with Carpathia and other nearby vessels with wireless sets.

The world was riveted to the breaking news from Cape Race - the largest moving object ever constructed by man had come racing through Newfoundland’s Iceberg Alley.  In some people’s minds …including possibly the Captain’s, the vessel was too big, too important, and too powerful to worry about the nine ice warnings received in the Marconi Room, but history records that on the night of April 14, 1912 the unsinkable ship encountered a smallish-sized iceberg and was lost forever on April 15, 1912 together with over 1500 souls.  Following the disaster, the frequent updates from Marconi’s remote wireless outpost at Cape Race turned the Titanic into one of the world’s first-ever "developing news stories" as a breathless world followed the frequent updates on survivors and lost passengers.  A century later, the saga of RMS Titanic still speaks to the world through maritime law, ship safety changes, international iceberg patrols, and through the stories and movies we use to entertain ourselves.   

Newfoundland’s Titanic Trail starts at Signal Hill in St. John’s where Marconi started the transatlantic technology that would save over 700 Titanic passengers and crew.  The Trail passes by museums possessing interesting Titanic artifacts (both authentic and Hollywood) and winds its way south to Cape Race.  Most fans of Titanic geography will know that Cape Race is the closest point of land to the Titanic and is located about 350 miles north-northwest of her final resting place.  They might not know that Cape Race has an ancient history and is found on some of the earliest maps of the new world.  The Cape was a critical point for marine navigation in the early days of transatlantic travel and many a sailing vessel wrecked along its rocky shore.  Due to thousands of maritime deaths in the region the first Cape Race lighthouse was constructed in the mid 19th century and soon after the more modern building we see today was built.

With its new lighthouse, Cape Race was a landfall beacon for ships from Europe travelling to North American ports and the Associated Press (AP) established a station to take advantage of Newfoundland telegraph services.  The AP paid shipping companies to bring the latest news from Europe in watertight canisters and drop them over the side as they steamed past Cape Race. The AP kept a steam launch, a boat crew and lookouts at the Cape. When a ship had news to transfer she would signal with flags or flares and the lookout would alert the boat crew. The news canisters were brought ashore to the telegraph operator who would put the news “on the wire” to New York four days before the ship arrived in port. It was a great business advantage for Associated Press and also good fortune for any fisherman who might find a canister missed by the AP crew since they would receive a generous reward.  Soon the “Via Cape Race” byline became well-known all over North America; however, the landing of the transatlantic cables at Heart’s Content, Newfoundland eventually put an end to that piece of Cape Race history.  The Myrick Center at Cape Race preserves photos, flags, and canisters from that era.

Following his breakthrough on Signal Hill, Marconi went on to refine his technology and in 1904 his company built a wireless station at Cape Race to receive messages from ships at sea.  Fire destroyed this original structure in 1910 and the Marconi Wireless Station was rebuilt.  There are few photos from that time but this image, courtesy of the Myrick Center at Cape Race shows the Marconi Station where Walter Gray and crew received Titanic’s distress message.  Note the large antennae in the middle of the building. The Myrick Interpretation Centre now stands at this historic site at Cape Race and was built in the shape of this 1910 building.

While many people are familiar with the geographic and historic role of Cape Race, the human element of the story also provides poignant insights into the era of the Titanic.  Cape Race Wireless operator Walter Gray was a Marconi school classmate of Jack Phillips, the Titanic’s operator.  Both men were fluent in morse and messages were quickly transmitted, received, and acknowledged.  When Phillips passed Cape Race on the Olympic a few months earlier he wired to his friend that he would be back soon on “the new one” referring to Titanic.  This was an exciting new posting for Phillips and Gray was upset to lose his Marconi school chum during the disaster.

Cape Race continued to serve as a vital wireless outpost into the mid-20th century when improvements in radio technology made the radio site obsolete.  The region is now home to a lighthouse keeper’s residence, the historic lighthouse, various government buildings, and the Myrick Center where one can go to immerse yourself in the region’s communications history and Titanic lore.  Cape Race at the end of Newfoundland’s Titanic Trail always makes the lists of prominent Titanic sites sought out by enthusiasts of that great ship from all over the world.  Make sure you include it in your Newfoundland and Labrador travel plans.