Titanic Tragedy In New York: Seamen's Church Institute And The First Memorial Service (PHOTOS)

What was likely the first memorial for those killed in the Titanic tragedy was not meant to be a memorial at all.

On April 16, 1912, after nearly a decade of fundraising, the Seamen's Church Institute, an Episcopalian maritime ministry, was ready to lay the cornerstone of its new million-dollar home for sailors at 25 South St. in lower Manhattan.

Among the project's donors were the biggest robber barons and philanthropists of the day: J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, three Vanderbilts and others.

Mayor William J. Gaynor was to lay the cornerstone.

But hours before the joyous occasion, tragic news reached New York and spread throughout the country: The unsinkable Titanic had sunk.

The ceremony wasn't canceled, however. Speakers amended their speeches to account for the tragedy, grasping at its significance while not yet knowing any of the details. Survivors from the Titanic -- now on the Carpathia -- were not to dock in New York for two more days.

"Because of the coincidence of the Titanic sinking one day before, the cornerstone-laying ceremony turned from a celebration of dedicating the new million-dollar sailors' home to an attempt to come to terms with what had just happened," Johnathan Thayer, the Seamen's Church Institute archivist, told The Huffington Post.

The institute has maintained extensive archives from the Titanic disaster, now on view at Queens College.

"You had the mayor and the bishop of New York up at the podium celebrating the work of Seamen's Church, then delivering remarks on the deaths of whoever would not be returning to New York on the Carpathia two days later," he added. "The facts weren't in yet, but something had to be said."

The president of the the institute's building committee, Edmund L. Baylies, concluded his speech by saying, "When we learn the full details of the overwhelming disaster which has just taken place, I feel sure that the minds and hearts of each one of my hearers will be thrilled with deeds of heroism on the part of sailors."

"The history of the sea is full of such examples," he added. "And in attempting to establish here a home for some of the 500,000 men who annually come to our port, we landsmen are paying but a very small portion of the debt which we owe to those who follow the sea with so faithful and watchful care over those who travel on the great deep."

When Gaynor laid the cornerstone, he sealed it shut with copies of the daily papers and their Titanic headlines inside.

The Seamen's Church Institute

Two days later, the Carpathia, carrying 200 survivors of the Titanic crew and 20 women stewardesses, arrived at Pier 54 to a media frenzy. The White Star Line, operators of the Titanic, hurried them into seclusion, fearing what crew members would say to the press.

The crew, however managed to attend a function at the American Seamen's Friend Society (now the Jane Hotel), where institute staff promptly doled out a full suit of clothes, boots and a cap, as well as a razor and a comb to each sailor. A short mourning service was then held for their colleagues lost at sea. (See image below.)

Seamen went on strike in England, protesting for better wages and safer working conditions. In June, the strikes reached the United States, where violent riots broke out along New York's waterfront, just outside the new headquarter's doors. Several strikers and policeman were shot and died in the riots.

The Seamen's Church Institute took part in efforts to reform labor and safety laws for sailors. Earlier, in 1898, the institute had played a role in the successful fight against the Fugitive Sailor Law, which had permitted corporal punishment for sailors committing mutiny. (Seamen had been the last civilian workers to face such punishment, which drew comparisons to the treatment of runaway slaves.)

After the Titanic sunk, the institute promoted passage of the Radio Act in 1912 -- which called for qualified wireless operators and better communication between the radio room and a ship's bridge. It also pushed for Congress to pass the Seamen's Act in 1915, ensuring nine-hour workdays for sailors and raising the standards for their accommodations and food.