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A Titanic Tale: How The Hersheys Narrowly Avoided Tragedy

Milton and Catherine Hershey were frequent travelers throughout the world. Photographs and postcards from their adventures were later placed into albums to be shared with visitors of their home. What some people may not know is that, while on one of their trips, a last-minute schedule change probably saved their lives.

An article in the Hershey Press announces Mr. Hershey's return to America. Mr. Hershey was originally scheduled to be on the Titanic.

A French Retreat

By the winter of 1912, the town of Hershey was expanding, as was Mr. Hershey’s fortune. The Hershey Company was a success, and Hershey Industrial School—now known as Milton Hershey School—was established through the Deed of Trust. Catherine’s health, though, was a constant struggle. The Hersheys found themselves searching for ways to alleviate Catherine’s chronic health problems and they spent increasing time in the warmth of the French Riviera.

In late 1911, the Hersheys journeyed to Nice, France. After participating in the town’s 1912 Carnival celebrations, they prepared to sail back to the United States together. This time, they would travel on a new ship, the RMS Titanic. To the Hersheys, this was an exciting opportunity as the Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ship the world had ever seen.

Just four months prior to the doomed voyage, Milton Hershey wrote a $300 deposit check to the White Star Line for first-class tickets on the Titanic. The check—a piece of history—is now in the Hershey Community Archives.

Business demands change plans

Fortunately, fate intervened, and the Hersheys never set foot on the doomed ship. Milton was called home early on business. He abruptly canceled his plans to book a quicker route back to the U.S. on the German liner Amerika. Meanwhile, Catherine stayed in Europe with a friend. Milton was already back in Hershey when the Titanic sank, taking the lives of more than 1,500 people. Pennsylvania newspapers covered Mr. Hershey’s near death, reporting that he arrived in Hershey on Sunday, April 7.

How close the Hersheys came to tragedy was not lost on the couple. In a postcard to her mother, Catherine wrote: “Just heard of sinking of the big steamer. How thankful I am God directs to safety in our travels.”

The Hersheys were not the only notable people scheduled to be aboard the Titanic. Wall Street investment banker J.P. Morgan, steel baron Henry Clay Frick, and A.G. Vanderbilt—heir to a renowned railroad empire—also originally planned to travel on the ship, but did not board.

A postcard from Catherine Hershey to her mother mourns the loss of people on the Titanic.

What if?

If the Hersheys had been on the Titanic, it is unlikely Milton would have survived. The ship’s captain, Edward Smith, demanded women and children have the first chance at lifeboat seats. Fame did not affect this command. John Jacob Aster IV, a millionaire whose family helped build New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Thomas Andrews, the Titanic’s architect, and Isidor Straus, a U.S. politician and co-owner of Macy’s department store, all died as victims of the Titanic. More than 70% of the women and 50% of the children on the Titanic survived, versus about 20% of the men.

The Hershey Company and MHS were launched prior to 1912. However, it is hard to say what would have happened to each had the Hersheys been on that ill-fated voyage. In the years after 1912, Milton Hershey devoted much of his life to the betterment of the town and the school. We have many public projects to thank him for including Hershey Theatre, The Hotel Hershey, and Hersheypark Arena. The Hershey community and thousands of MHS graduates are grateful that Milton Hershey was alive to shape the town and school into what they are today.

Image of the Hershey’s ticket purchase from White Star Line courtesy of the Hershey Community Archives.

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