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About that ’09 Ticker Tape Parade — 1909, That Is

Photo from Flickr user Patrick Rasenberg

On Broadway, in Lower Manhattan, the sidewalk is regularly interrupted by embedded plaques which memorialize each of the city’s ticker tape parades along the so-called “Canyon of Heroes.” Over 180 parades have been held, recognizing everyone from Albert Einstein to Miguel Alemán Valdés. (He was President of Mexico, as you no doubt recall.) The first ticker tape parade, legend has it, was a spontaneous affair in honor of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. It caught on – for a while anyway.

Since the parade honoring the 1969 Mets, who, believe it or not, actually won the World Series, there have been, counting today’s, nineteen parades. Of those 19, one was for the Pope, one for Nelson Mandela, one for released hostages, one for astronauts, three for veterans – and 12 have been for athletes or teams. In fact, since 1991, John Glenn and crew have been the only non-athletes to earn a parade. In that time span, the Yankees have had five.

Now, I’m not saying I don’t like the Yankees (at least in this post), but there’s something charming about the parades of yore. Foreign dignitaries, aviators, the military, explorers. The Yanks still got their due (they’ve had 11 parades total), but the process embraced a broader swath of achievement.

Case in point: 100 years ago, the City of New York took to the streets to shower adulation and appreciation on none other than one Jack Binns. Yes, that Jack Binns.

Those several dozen of you who have seen the movie Titanic may remember that the eponymous vessel was operated by the White Star Line shipping company. About a decade before the Titanic sank, White Star had another ship meet a similar fate, the Republic.

From JackBinns.org, photo of the Republic taken from a rescue ship. The light-colored area is a tarp covering the damaged area in an attempt to stem water intake

From its Wikipedia entry:

In early morning of 23 January 1909, while sailing from New York City to Gibraltar and Mediterranean ports with 742 passengers and crew and Captain Inman Sealby in command, Republic entered a thick fog off the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts…. The steamer reduced speed and regularly signaled its presence by whistle. At 5:47 a.m., another whistle was heard and the Republic’s engines were ordered to full reverse, and the helm put “hard-a-port”. Out of the fog, the Lloyd Italiano liner SS Florida appeared and hit Republic amidships, at about a right angle.

The collision killed five, but threatened everyone as the Republic began to take on water. As Captain Sealby (pronounced “Sully”) organized the passengers to abandon ship, the pinnacle of modern technology was employed: the radio. Specifically – the wireless telegraph.

This is where Jack Binns enters the scene. The ship’s 25 year-old radio operator, he had, according to JackBinns.org (he has a domain!), just gone to bed after an overnight shift when the collision occurred. The wireless station, which was sliced in half by the Florida‘s prow, was in bad shape. Binns got the system up and running and sent the message, “CQD CQD here is MKC MKC shipwrecked.” CQD was the precursor to SOS; MKD the Republic‘s call sign. This was the first duress called ever radioed from a ship.

Photo of Jack Binns from JackBinns.org

Passengers were moved to the Florida, while Binns continued to wire updates form the Republic, and, eventually, assist rescue ships in their approach to the scene. By the time everyone was safe, Binns had been operating the wireless telegraph for over two straight days. The Republic soon sank, the largest vessel to have done so to that date. But those killed in the collision were the only deaths. Around 1200 people were saved by the timely arrival of assistance.

In a profile of Binns from PBS’ American Experience, Binns came ashore in New York to unexpected adoration. In addition to the ticker tape parade, he was the subject of a song (as was the style at the time) and a short film. Eventually, Binns became a journalist and businessman. He died in 1959.

Today, fans take to the streets to express their appreciation for the Yankees’ victory, lining the “Canyon of Heroes” to shower the team (and its $208 million payroll) with pre-fabricated confetti, provided by the City of New York.

I don’t mean to imply that baseball players should not be considered heroes (except A-Rod, who shouldn’t). Athletes inspire millions. They provide a sense of community. In the best case scenario, they are strong role models for children. But in 1909, New Yorkers came out to celebrate a working class British kid who, simply by doing his job, saved over a thousand lives.

We could use a few more parades like that.

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