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The SS Californian: The Dundee Built Ship That Failed to Save The Titanic

When you think of Dundee’s maritime heritage, the RRS Discovery and HMS Unicorn spring to mind. However, they are just two of many ships that are associated with the city.


But there is one other ship that holds a significant place in history – and it was built here in Dundee way back at the start of the 20th century - the SS Californian.


The SS Californian was built in Dundee by the Caledonian Shipbuilding & Engineering Company in 1901 – the same year as the RRS Discovery.


It was a ship that was designed to deliver cargo to and from various locations. It launched in the November of 1901, eight months after the Discovery.


What many might not know about this ship, is the historic connection it has with the RMS Titanic, and it’s “role” it played in the sinking of the ship back in April 1912.


The RMS Titanic is arguably the most famous ship in the world – and although it was known at the time as the largest ship in the world, it would, days after its launch on its maiden voyage, be known for a more infamous reason when the ship sunk in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg on its way to New York.

 On the night of 14 April, after stopping for the night in the middle of an ice field, the SS Californian’s wireless operator Cyril Evans alerted the Titanic of the ice, but due to a backlog of passenger messages on the ship, the Titanic’s wireless operator Jack Phillips, who perished in the sinking, replied with “Shut up, shut up! Keep out, I am busy; I am working Cape Race!”


After the Titanic hut the iceberg, distress signals were sent out to ships in and around the vicinity of the doomed ship – one of them was the Californian, which was on its way to deliver cargo to the United States at around the same time the Titanic was setting sail.


Unfortunately for the crew of the Titanic, the SS Californian crew switched off communications for the night after Evans thought he had done his duty and went to bed.


As a result of this, the SS Californian never received the distress signal from the Titanic – and found out the morning afterwards about what had happened.


Four days after the sinking, an inquiry was launched by the United States Senate into the circumstances of what happened. They referenced a ship that failed to respond to the Titanic’s SOS signals – however the identity of the ship was unknown. What they weren’t aware of however, is that the Californian had arrived in Boston on the day the inquiry


It was only the next day when a small newspaper, The Clinton Daily Item, printed a shocking story claiming that Californian had refused aid to Titanic which would later be denied by the crew of the Californian.


Despite the inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic, no charges were ever brought to the crew of the ship.


It was always said that the Californian could have saved most, if not all the passengers on the Titanic. Unfortunately, that was never the case, and instead of the Californian, the Carpathia came to aid the passengers who survived the sinking.


The SS Californian isn’t the only link Dundee has to the Titanic, as the man responsible for taking the key to the binoculars safe, David Blair, was from Dundee. If he hadn’t did this, some say that the crew of the Titanic could have noticed the Titanic quicker and no lives would have been lost.


Dundee’s connections to the Titanic are unfortunately not recognised, but due to the terrible circumstances which occurred, that might be the reason why it isn’t notable.


But even so, the SS Californian played a significant role in one of the most infamous events in history – and Dundee will forever have links with that which is nothing but fascinating.


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