Hunting for secrets
- Mardi Ford
- The Observer
More than the lure of Spanish galleon gold, it is the siren's call of secrets in stories that awakens history buff and amateur sleuth John Lamoreau. Few stories or buried secrets have captured his imagination as much as that of the Titanic.
Four days out on her 1912 maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean headed for New York, the R.M.S. Titanic Â— pride of the White Star line Â— struck an iceberg off the southeast coast of Newfoundland shortly before midnight on Sunday, April 14. Hailed as unsinkable and a marvel of current technology, the ship went down less than three hours later in the wee hours of April 15. There were 2,201 registered passengers and crew aboard. Best estimates list the number of survivors at 705, or less than one-third.
The bevy of Titanic buffs has its share of men and women searching for knowledge, unraveling mysteries, gathering clues. Among that crowd, Lamoreau is making a name for himself. In fact, Lamoreau may possess the largest private collection of Titanic artifacts in the Pacific Northwest. "Anyway, I believe so," Lamoreau says.
Though he has spent nearly 20 years acquiring the collection, don't be misled Â— it isn't their possession that fuels Lamoreau's passion as much as the history behind each item.
"It's love for the history Â— the lives and the deaths of these people. When the Titanic sank 95 years ago she took the rich and the famous as well as second- and third-class passengers. What makes the Titanic fascinating is who lived, who died and why," he says.
Lamoreau recently helped a woman authenticate a battered straw hat she possessed. Family anecdote held it had come from the head of a child named Willy who had survived the Titanic tragedy. The woman's ancestor had met the boy on board the Carpathia, the rescue ship, and supposedly felt sorry for the child. He offered to exchange his own newer hat for the boy's.
Searching for clues and piecing them all together, Lamoreau was able to substantiate the claim by placing the ancestor on the Carpathia, identify the child in question as Titanic third-class passenger, 9-year-old Willie Coutts, and find a picture of Willie wearing the hat.
Lamoreau's detective work not only aided the owner Â— who was trying to sell the hat to literally save the family farm Â— but his own reputation as a Titanic sleuth. Although he bid on the hat, he lost out. But the real value in his effort was expanding the Titanic story and sharing the find with other Titanic enthusiasts.
"If you can connect the bits of history together, you bring it alive," he says. "Every human thing that goes on in this world was encapsulated in a few hours' time that night."
Another story long forgotten and recently pieced together by Lamoreau surrounds Oregon's only first-class couple aboard the Titanic, Frank and Anna Warren.
Warren had made his fortune as a "pioneer fish packer" with a large and successful cannery along the Columbia River. The Warrens were one of Portland's most prominent families, and the town of Warrendale is named after Frank Warren.
After touring throughout Europe and Africa for three months in 1912, the Warrens boarded the Titanic with the likes of millionaires John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim. Four days later tragedy struck, and although the Warrens both headed for the lifeboats, at some point Mr. Warren turned away and began assisting others. It wasn't until later that Mrs. Warren discovered her husband had given up his seat to someone else.
A month later, the couple's daughter wrote a very personal and poignant letter to friends in Austria recounting some of the ordeal:
"I am so glad they had these last three months alone together as they shared their fortieth anniversary. It sometimes seems as if this ending must be an evil dream and that we can not have lost our father, friend and comrade.... He gave up his life as nobly as he always lived it and we are trying ... in as brave a way face this overwhelming sorrow and help mother bear it. It was all so unnecessary Â— such wanton waste of human life. But of that I can not write. Our hearts are full of gratitude that mother is spared to us."
Although at the time the Warrens' story ran on the front page of The Oregonian, eventually it was forgotten Â— until 18 months ago when a nearly 100-year-old letter surfaced in New York referencing a Titanic survivor, and Lamoreau got wind of it.
The owner of the letter was seeking help in identifying the writer, thinking it was a man named Frances E. Barreu Â— a name that meant nothing to Lamoreau. It matched no manifests, nor was it referenced in other Titanic writings.
As he sat at his computer studying the letter, Lamoreau was stunned to realize exactly what he was looking at Â— the "B" in Barreu was a rounded, loopy "W," and the "u" resembled other "n"s in the script: The writer's last name was Warren.
"I couldn't believe it. It just popped out at me. I knew about the Warrens, and as I studied other clues in the letter, I was sure it was written by a woman, and that woman had to be the Warrens' daughter, Frances. This is another piece of the Oregon connection to the Titanic that was lost," Lamoreau says excitedly.
Recently, Lamoreau made another exciting discovery, bringing the Oregon connection to the Titanic even closer to home Â— a link to Pendleton. Lamoreau had discovered a letter dated Sept. 30, 1912 Â— just five months after the tragedy Â— while researching William Harbeck.
Harbeck was one of the first filmmakers to make moving pictures. He had made a name for himself after filming the great Alaskan wilderness. That film helped raise awareness of, and opposition to, what became known as the Alaskan Land Grab of the early 20th century.
Lamoreau knew that during the winter of 1912 Harbeck had traveled around Europe taking moving pictures of various cities for release in American theaters. By the end of March he had completed his work and booked return passage on the Titanic. What transpired in the wrangling between business partners, family members and the White Star line over Harbeck's lost effects is a fascinating story in itself.
But the bottom line was that in September 1912 White Star officials received a letter from John Harbeck, the son of the victim, on stationery from his father's studio. The letter had been buried for decades in the company's archives when Lamoreau came across it.
John Harbeck's letter to the White Star line was written on his father's film company letterhead. It proclaimed: "W.H. Harbeck's Moving Pictures Of the Round Up, Pendleton, Ore. Best film ever made depicting wild western life. Dare devil steer bulldogging and spectacular bronco busting."
"When I saw the words Â‘Pendleton Round Up,' I almost fell off my chair. I thought, Â‘Great Scott! There's another connection to Oregon,' " Lamoreau says.
After more research, he was able to discover that it was the 1911 event Harbeck filmed and that copies of that footage were somewhere in the possession of the Oregon Historical Society. Lamoreau is now looking into getting copies of those films.
"Harbeck was one of the most important filmmakers of his day. Who knows what he would have gone on to accomplish had he lived," Lamoreau says. "Before this came out, a lot of people had forgotten the Pendleton connection."