YEARS AGO, I FOUND HER PHOTO in “A Pictorial History of Columbia County”: Gretchen Fiske Longley of Hudson. As a young woman she had survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic, which went down in the North Atlantic in April 1912 after hitting an iceberg.
I wanted to know more about Gretchen Longley, but the caption identified her only as the daughter of former Hudson mayor Levi Longley and granddaughter of Robert E. Andrews, district attorney of Columbia County and Supreme Court justice.
Searching ancestry.com, I learned that Gretchen was born on September 1, 1890. She had brown hair, blue eyes, and at 21, stood five feet eight inches tall. She was an orphan by the time she was 12, and lived with her grandmother and maternal aunts at 751 Warren Street, a house that no longer exists.
Interviewed on the opening of the first “Titanic” movie, A Night to Remember” (1958), Gretchen told a reporter that her aunts, Louisa Hogeboom and Kornelia Andrews, had taken her to Europe. After traveling in France and Italy, they booked a first-class return on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.
At 11:45 on the night of April 14, Gretchen was awakened by a terrific crash. In the hall outside her room she found ice crystals, which had come in through a porthole. “No danger,” a steward said, and the women went back to bed. But after midnight, a commotion broke out in the hall. The women were told to don life preservers “as a precaution.” They topped their nightdresses with fur coats and rushed on deck. The crew was filling lifeboats. The third boat had room for Gretchen, but she refused to go without her aunts. The family left in the fourth — and last — lifeboat.
Lowered 75 feet into the icy water, the women found only one able-bodied seaman in their boat. Gretchen pulled an oar until she was exhausted. At about 2 a.m., they saw the Titanic’s boilers explode. The ship’s lights went out. Then the Titanic broke in two and disappeared. The shrieks were blood curdling, Gretchen said, as more than a thousand people drowned.
About dawn, the RMS Carpathia appeared on the horizon. After seven hours in the water, Gretchen’s lifeboat reached the rescue ship. The women were hauled aboard like cattle, ropes tied around their waists. Fingers and feet frozen, their throats hoarse with cold, the Hudson natives refused a stateroom; other survivors were in even worse shape. Eight days after boarding the Titanic, Gretchen and her aunts reached New York.
Eighteen months later, Gretchen Fiske Longley married Dr. Raymond Leopold in Hudson. They moved to the Philadelphia area, and had two daughters and a son.
Two-and-a-half years after the Titanic disaster, Mrs. Leopold sailed to Bermuda, “just to see if I could do it.” After that, she sailed across the Atlantic 13 times.
Miss Andrews, who was secretary to the Board of Trustees of the Hudson City Hospital, died on December 4, 1913. Mrs. Hogeboom lived in New Jersey and in Hillsdale, where she died in October 1948. Both women are buried in a family plot in Cedar Park Cemetery in Hudson; other Hogeboom ancestors are buried in the cemetery at the Reformed Dutch Church of Claverack.
Dr. Leopold eventually became executive vice president of Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital. He retired in 1953 and died in 1957. Gretchen ran an antiques shop in Germantown, PA.
She died peacefully in August 1965, in her stateroom aboard the SS Constitution, on a Mediterranean cruise.
Margaret Ryan is a poet and writer who lives part-time in Old Chatham. “A Pictorial History of Columbia County” was published by Hudson-Catskill Newspapers.