Going through some old family photographs, I stumbled on the one to the left–a picture of a young Elizabeth Boner, my great grandmother, posing with her cousin, Walter Clark. My mother always said that Bessie Boner (1878-1954), whose mother died when she was seven, was raised by “the Clarks,” and by that she probably meant Bess’ uncle James Ross Clark, who moved to Los Angeles in 1892.
Walter Clark (1884-1912), the son of James Ross Clark, went down on the infamous R.M.S. Titanic, the largest and most luxurious luxury liner of all time. Heeding the chivalrous call “women and children first,” Walter escorted his wife to lifeboat No. 4 then returned in an heroic attempt to rescue more people. If his body was recovered, it was never identified.
Tragically, as it turns out, there was room for Walter on lifeboat No. 4.
Walter and his wife Virginia McDowell boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg, France, on April 10th, 1912, with ticket number 13508, £136 15s 7d. They were returning home to Los Angeles, California, from a vacation abroad. The Titanic was headed for New York; they probably intended on taking a train to L.A. Their young child, James Ross Clark II, wasn’t with them. Traveling first class, they occupied cabin C-87.
An amazing amount of detail about the sinking of the Titanic has been collected online. From it, we learn that boat 4 was lowered at 1:55 a.m. on April 15th from the Port side with only 30 people in it, even though it had a capacity of 50. The idea was to pick up more passengers from the aft gangway. The boat was rowed into position, but the gangway doors never opened. Walter could have found a seat on boat 4.
Virginia never talked publicly about what happened next. Two and a half hours after the Titanic sank, the RMS Carpathia arrived to rescue survivors. The passengers of boat 4 were drifting in front of the big ship, apparently too weak to call out in the dark. Thankfully, a big black Newfoundland dog, Rigel, was barking his head off. The dog had been swimming in the icy water for three hours, probably looking for its master. Legend has it that boat 4 may not have been rescued if not for the dog’s sharp barking.
Newspapers at the time were eager to talk with the boat’s survivors. When Virginia, who was traveling by train from New York to Los Angeles, stopped in Salt Lake City, reporters were eager to talk with her. Her husband’s cousin, William A. Clark, Jr., had gone to meet her. He spoke to the news media. He insisted that his sister-in-law, Virginia, was too distraught to talk with reporters. But he took the occasion to remark on Walter’s heroism.
“My cousin, Walter,” said Mr. Clark, according to a Salt Lake City newspaper, “after having assisted his wife to one of the lifeboats of the Titanic, went back to his fate with the other brave men on the great liner. Because of the distressing impressions left upon the mind of his widow it is absolutely impossible for her to accord an interview to any person.”
Clark went on to say that Virginia was confined to her car on the Los Angeles limited train. His top priority was to hurry her home so that she could get careful medical attention and achieve “greater comfort of mind than which she is now experiencing.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s marriage to Tanner may not have lasted long. She may have divorced him in 1917, about the same time the 32-year-old Tanner registered for the WWI draft. According to the 1920 Census, John Stewart Tanner was living as a roomer in San Francisco. His marital status is listed as “divorced.”
It’s unclear where Virginia was living at the time. But she crosses paths with Tanner in the 1930s, when they travel together to France and England. A ship log from 1934 has the Tanners living at the same address, 581 Valley Road in Santa Barbara.
Interestingly, ship logs from the 1920s show Tanner traveling with another Virginia Tanner, one who had been born several years after the original Virginia, and in the state of Virginia rather than Montana. But they may have been the same person.
According to a posting by a distant family member on Ancestry.com, the Tanners remarried in New York on January 5, 1930.
On a trip to Hawaii in 1934, a Virginia Tanner is once again traveling with John Tanner. Her date of birth is listed as May 30, 1888, the day Virginia McDowell was born. Her place of birth is listed as Helena, Montana. But it’s crossed out and “James Co., Virginia” is handwritten over it.
In 1937, Clark’s mother Miriam donated land and funds to build the Walter Miller Clark Memorial Community Church in Long Beach, CA. It is now named Lakewood Village Community Church. A memorial plaque for Walter within the Clark monument at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.