Titanic Museum – Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Titanic Museum – Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Spoiler Alert: The Boat Sank.

I am one of those rare women who, as an adult in 1997,  had no desire to see James Cameron’s cinematic masterpiece, Titanic. My reasoning was that I knew how the movie would end (the boat sinks… duh!) and, therefore, whatever story it had to tell could not possibly have a happy ending. Life is just too short to watch movies that end in tragedy, particularly romantic ones.

I still haven’t seen the movie. Not even via Netflix.

The Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge

Normally, I wouldn’t have thought twice about going to a museum dedicated to a disastrous loss of life. There are plenty of things for foodies, shopaholics, and nature lovers to see and do in Pigeon Forge. Unfortunately, however, there isn’t much tailored toward history geeks like me.

Determined to get some history in on this trip, I booked tickets for the Titanic Museum. I didn’t even realize that the museum looked like the ship (albeit only half the size)!

The exterior of the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that! We went up to the main entrance where we were greeted by costumed staff and handed boarding passes.

Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge - Boarding Pass

You see, each boarding pass had the story of a real Titanic passenger – man, woman, or child – printed on the back. Mine was Bridget McDermott, a 31 year old Irish woman who sought a better life in the United States. The brief bio said that she had been heading for the lifeboats when she decided to run back and get her new hat. I couldn’t believe that anyone would have been that foolish, and figured that surely she must have been one of the many people who didn’t survive.

Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge Boarding Pass for Bridget McDermot

The outside of the Titanic Museum, combined with the general Pigeon Forge vibe, made me think that this could be a real cheesy tourist attraction. Happily, it was anything but. The Titanic Museum is the real deal, even endorsed by the Titanic Historical Society.

It holds the largest display of genuine Titanic artifacts anywhere, valued above $4 million. Not one has been altered, forged, stolen or looted, and not one was retrieved from the wreck site on the floor of the North Atlantic. Every item on display, including those on loan from private collectors, either was carried off the ship and into a lifeboat or was recovered from the floating debris field after the ship sank.

The Tour

We entered the museum and began looking at the exhibits. Among the first we saw were those that detailed the design and construction of the massive ship. A costumed guide spoke about the timeline of events for the Titanic‘s maiden voyage. It took two hours and 40 minutes for the ship to sink after that initial impact with the iceberg. This may sound like a long time, but when you think of how large the ship was (882 feet long, 92 feet wide, and 104 feet high) and how many people were unable to get off the ship before it went under (a thousand or more, mostly men and crew members), you realize that it happened rather quickly.

The ship’s lookout called the control room and notified them that there was an iceberg straight ahead at 11:39 pm on April 14, 1912. Orders are given for the ship to turn, which it does. The maneuver was too late, however; 37 seconds later, the Titanic struck the iceberg, and began to flood immediately.

Prior to that moment, the passengers on board were traveling in style, cruising the ocean in the lap of luxury. We saw artifacts from the ship’s cabins and dining areas – silver tea services, fine china plates, even plush carpet fragments.

A dining service from the RMS Titanic, on display at the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.
A dining service from the RMS Titanic, on display at the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.

The Titanic Museum even contained a replica of the ship’s Grand Staircase:

The Grand Staircase (lower level) in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.
The Grand Staircase (lower level) in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.

On the lower level of the Grand Staircase, a costumed staff member told us that no expense had been spared when the Titanic was being built. (Even the replica cost over $1 million to build!) He noted the milk glass dome above us and the genuine gold leaf elements on the stair’s railing. But most expensive of all, he noted, was the flooring on which we stood. He said it was more expensive than granite or marble in the 1910s, and asked us to guess what it was. I had no idea. Imagine my surprise when he revealed that it was linoleum! Apparently, it was a relatively new material in that day, and therefore very expensive. What was remarkable was that the tour had us walking up the stairs, just like Titanic passengers would have.

The Grand Staircase (upper level) in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.
The Grand Staircase (upper level) in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.

At the top of the stairs we went into a very luxurious room, which was a replica of a first class state room. Talk about traveling in style! It was gorgeous!

A first class State Room in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.
A first class state room in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.

Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to really take in all the details. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but almost as soon as I entered that room, I was overcome with nausea. Fearing that I could be sick right then and there, I told my family to keep going and I would catch up with them. I left in search of a rest room. I didn’t find one, but eventually the nausea passed, and I backtracked to find my family.

A mirrored hallway connected the first class cabin with a formal room containing exhibits about musicians on the Titanic. A shiny grand piano dominated the room full with portraits of the men who entertained passengers aboard the Titanic. I was reading about some of them when I head a booming voice in the adjacent room say, “Well, you know, you just can’t shut a Baptist up.”

I wasn’t born into a Baptist family, but I am a Baptist now by choice. Needless to say, this statement got my attention. I went straight in there to find out what, exactly, was being said.

The room was a simulation of the ship “bridge,” or command center.

The captain's bridge in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.
The captain’s bridge in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.

A tall man with white hair and beard, dressed in a naval captain’s uniform, was telling the story of the Titanic’s last hero, Reverend John Harper. It went something like this:

In the moments after the ship struck the iceberg at 11:40 pm, panic ensued and people frantically tried to figure out what to do, but not John Harper. He placed his six year old daughter in a life boat, and promised he would see her again. He then turned back and made his way up the deck yelling “Women, children and unsaved into the lifeboats!” When the ship began breaking in half, many people thought that the loud noise they heard was an explosion.  They jumped off the decks and into the icy, dark waters below. John Harper was one of these people.

That night, 1528 people went into the frigid waters. John Harper swam frantically to people in the water, to check on their spiritual status. One young man had climbed up on a piece of debris. Rev. Harper asked him between breaths, “Are you saved?” The young man replied that he was not. Harper then tried to lead him to Christ, but his efforts did not meet with success. John Harper then took off his life jacket, threw it to the man and said, “Here, then, you need this more than I do…” and swam away to other people. A few minutes later Harper swam back to the young man and, this time, succeeded in leading him to salvation.

Of the 1528 people that went into the water that night, six escaped by the lifeboats. One of them was that young man. Four years later, at a meeting of Titanic survivors, this young man stood up and tearfully recounted how John Harper had led him to Christ. Mr. Harper had tried to swim back to help other people, but because of the intense cold, had grown too weak to swim. His last words before going under in the frigid waters were “Believe on the Name of the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”

What a powerful story!

We thanked the Captain for his time and moved out onto a room that looked like the deck of the ship.

The deck of the Titanic as it would have appeared the night it sank - Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge Tennessee.
The deck of the Titanic as it would have appeared the night it sank.

A jagged wall of ice represented the iceberg, and visitors were encouraged to reach over the deck rail to put their fingers in the icy cold water. The water was 28 degrees Fahrenheit when the ship began to sink. The room was as dark as it would have been that fateful night, with light only provided by ship lanterns and distant twinkling LED stars. Nothing brought the point home as much as feeling it ourselves.

The Captain

The man who told us the story of John Harper was Lowell Lytle, affectionately referred to by museum staff as “The Captain.” He bears a striking resemblance to the real captain of the Titanic, Edward J Smith.  See for yourself:

Captain Edward J Smith of the RMS Titanic, and Lowell Lytle, who portrays the captain at the Titanic Museum Attraction.
Captain Edward J Smith of the RMS Titanic, and Lowell Lytle, who portrays the captain at the Titanic Museum Attraction.

Not only does he bear a resemblance to the real captain of the Titanic, he is also one heck of a storyteller.  And not only is he a terrific storyteller, he is also one of the few people who has gone to the ocean floor to see the wreckage of the Titanic in person.

Back in 2000, he told us, he managed to convince the owners of RMS Titanic, Inc. that he should be allowed to go on an expedition to salvage artifacts from the sunken ship. At 6′ 4″ and 68 years of age, he was not the ideal candidate for spending half a day inside a tiny submersible on the ocean floor.  He says he is the oldest and tallest person to dive to the Titanic.

Since 1998, Lytle has played Captain Smith for audiences all over the world. He has researched the passengers’ stories, memorized the captain’s last speech and even met some of the survivors. He has written about his experience, including playing the captain and traveling to the wreckage site, in Diving Into the Deep. I bought a signed copy at the museum and I’m thoroughly enjoying it! You can buy a copy here, if you would like to learn more. (Affiliate link – I get a tiny kickback if you purchase):

The End

The last museum exhibit we saw was the listing of who had survived and what became of them afterward. A larger list detailed the names of those who died in the tragic incident.  Bridget McDermott, the passenger listed on my boarding pass, was a survivor.  (Presumably, so was her hat!)  My daughter’s boarding pass person was also a survivor.  This is largely due to the fact that they were both female.  Women and children really did receive preferential treatment in evacuating the ship. My husband’s designated passenger, did not survive, perishing in the cold water of the Atlantic.

The Effect

I thought about how the passengers aboard that ship must have felt at the beginning of their journey.  Excited, anxious, looking forward to a dream vacation or, as in the case of Bridget McDermott, a new life full of opportunities in another country. No one would have thought for a moment that anything would go wrong or that their journey across the ocean would be anything but fabulous. I feel that way myself when I’m about to travel someplace new.

I now have a new appreciation for how unpredictable life can be. The bottom line is that none of us knows which “goodbye” will be our last.

And in Case You’re Wondering…

Yes, I will watch the Titanic movie sometime very soon.

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About the Images in this post: The Titanic Museum Attraction doe not allow photography inside the building.  The photos in this post are either photos that I took outside the museum, or they are media photos used with permission of the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.

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