Gear Head Tuesday – Race Car Driver Goes Down With Titanic

Gear Head

W.A. Roebling II

Washington Augustus Roebling II

Our Steamship Sunday post this past Sunday covered the sinking of Titanic on 15 April 1912. We noted at some 1,500 passengers and crew perished with the ship. One of those who went down with the ship was American race car driver Washington Augustus Roebling II.

Adapted from Encyclopedia Titanica:

Roebling was born in Trenton, Mercer, New Jersey on 25 March 1881.

He was the son of Charles Gustavus Roebling (b. 1849) and Sarah Mahon Ormsby (b. 1856) and was named for his father’s eldest brother, Washington Augustus Roebling (1837-1926), an American Civil War veteran and civil engineer whose best known work included the Brooklyn Bridge.

Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge – note the Quaker Oats ad at the right.

His father was born in New Jersey to German immigrants, his own father, John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869) having founded John A. Roebling & Sons engineering company and linked with the world’s first modern steel suspension bridges. A graduate of Rensselaer Institute, proprietor of a wireworks and Vice President of his father’s company until his death, Charles was married to his Pittsburgh-born wife Sarah, known as Sallie, on 25 January 1877.


Washington had three known siblings: Harrison Ormsby (1877-1883), Emily Margaretta (1880-1941) and Helen (1885-1963). He had at least two other siblings who died as small infants. He first appears on the 1885 census, still living in Trenton. His mother passed away on 15 January 1887 and his father never remarried.


A very grainy photo of Roebling at the wheel of the Roebling-Planche racer he designed and built while working at Mercer.

Roebling graduated first from the State Model School and then from the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania with a degree in engineering. While in school, he was noted for his skills in football. After working for a time at his father’s business (the Roebling Wire Company), he began work at the Walter Automobile plant which was later taken over by the Mercer Automobile Company, Mercerville. While at the Mercer plant he designed and built his Roebling-Planche racing car, finishing in second place in the Vanderbilt Cup Race in Savannah, Georgia in 1910.


Mercer Raceabout

In early 1912, Roebling left on a tour of Europe with his friend Stephen Weart Blackwell, also of Trenton. Roebling’s chauffeur, Frank Stanley accompanied the two men, bringing with them Roebling’s FIAT car. They toured Italy and France, and it was in France that they met up with the George Dennick Wick family. It was on the voyage to Europe, they also become acquainted with a member of the Wick party, Miss Caroline Bonnell. A week before the completion of their trip, Stanley fell ill and returned to the U.S. on another ship, bringing the FIAT back with him.

Roebling and Blackwell boarded Titanic at Southampton as first class passengers. Roebling carried ticket Number PC 17590 (£50 9s 11d) and occupied cabin A-24.

On the night of 14 April, according to Edith Graham and her daughter Margaret, Roebling and Howard Case alerted them to the danger, escorting them to the lifeboats and making no attempt to enter themselves. Caroline Bonnell said Roebling also helped her and the women in the Wick party into a lifeboat, during which he said cheerfully, “You will be back with us on the ship again soon.”

Roebling and Blackwell both perished. There was some confusion over Roebling’s fate when an early list of survivors listed a “Mr. Washington”. This was later determined to refer to Dr. Washington Dodge who escaped with his wife and son.

Upon receiving word of the sinking, two cousins of Roebling, Ferdinand W. Roebling, Jr. and Karl Roebling left for New York with Blackwell’s two brothers. After failing to find their relatives among the survivors arriving on Carpathia (the Cunard liner that rescued most of the survivors) and talking with Miss Bonnell, the relatives realized the men’s fate and returned to Trenton.

After the chauffeur Stanley’s return to America, the FIAT, the only remnant of the men’s ill-fated journey, was driven back home by relatives. It is not known what became of the FIAT.

His father Charles, a prominent member of the Trinity Episcopal Church in Trenton, later had the west wall of the cathedral rebuilt as a memorial to his son. Having never recovered from the death of his son, he died on 5 October 1918 and was buried in Riverview Cemetery in Trenton.

Roebling headline

History For Only A Penny

(Hat tip: “B-Squared”)

In the 1940s engine shops would safety wire a penny from the year of overhaul on the engine so if the logbooks were ever lost mechanics could at least tell the year it was overhauled. The tradition continues today. Here is a penny on the Pratt & Whitney T-6 1340 engine:

Lucky penny

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