Polly (Harelkin) Verigin: Recalling the Titanic

Polly (Harelkin) Verigin: Recalling the Titanic

by Gary Lewchuk

Polly (nee Harelkin) Verigin (1904-2000) was eight years old when, in April 1912, the ship she and her family immigrated to Canada on, the SS Californian, passed within a dozen miles of the sinking RMS Titanic.  The Californian’s captain drew heavy criticism for his failure to take action in response to the distress signals of the doomed ship.  Reproduced from the pages of The Canora Courier newspaper (Canora, Saskatchewan: March 4, 1998), the following article recounts one Doukhobor family’s historic connection to the infamous “Californian Incident”.  The article is followed by additional source information about the Titanic and the Californian, as well as an Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. 

As the movie Titanic rekindles interest in an 86 [now 100] year old story, Polly Verigin of the Canora Gateway Lodge recalls the actual scene. She was just eight years old when her family immigrated from Russia and they were aboard the SS Californian, the ship which became famous because its captain refused to believe the RMS Titanic was in trouble. Due to heavy ice flow, the Californian had stopped for the night and was an estimated 12 to 14 miles from the Titanic.

Verigin recalls running around and playing on the deck when the crew spotted flares on the horizon. Her father hoisted her up to his shoulder so that she could have a better view. The captain had to be awakened to be informed of the Titanic’s plight, but he refused to believe it, saying the Titanic was unsinkable. He surmised that instead of emergency flares (rockets) those were fireworks and a celebration of the maiden voyage.

Sinking at the bow, the Titanic fired distress rockets in a vain attempt for help. Image credit: Ken Marschall / Madison Press.

Historical accounts show that the Titanic hit an iceberg at about 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912. Before it sank at 2:20 a.m., more than 700 passengers and crew members escaped on life boats, but 1,522 souls met their fate in the frigid water. At 3:30 a.m., the RMS Carpathia arrived at the scene to answer the SOS distress call and managed to rescue the 705 survivors from lifeboats.

It wasn’t until the early morning that the SS Californian realized that the Titanic had indeed sunk and it steered towards the disaster site. At about 8:30 a.m., when the Carpathia was pulling in the last life boat, the Californian steamed through the floating wreckage to check for survivors. None were found.

That was a story retold many times during Verigin’s life, said her daughter, Irene Stenko of Kelowna, B.C. When she celebrated her 94th birthday on February 18, 1998, it seemed fitting to tell the story again, especially with the amount of interest rekindled by the movie. Verigin’s actual birthday is on February 23. Actually her mother should have arrived in North America a full month before the Titanic disaster, but her family was delayed in Liverpool, England. Her parents, Alex and Mary Harelkin were immigrating from Russia with their four children when they were stopped in Liverpool. A pimple was observed on her sibling’s face and the immediate fear was that it was the dreaded small pox. The Doukhobor family was kept in quarantine for one month before it was established that small pox was not present. In the meantime, all their luggage and personal belongings remained aboard the ship and were never recovered.

When her family eventually arrived in Canada, they travelled to Yorkton, Saskatchewan where they were met by Verigin’s uncle. He had immigrated to Canada earlier and they lived with him for a short period before buying a house in Canora. Her father worked for the railroad. In 1925, Polly Harelkin married Nick Verigin and they farmed in the Buchanan area. In the mid 1980’s they moved to Buchanan and after he died, she continued to live in her home and then in a senior’s housing unit until 1996 when she moved to the Gateway Lodge. Verigin has three daughters, Irene Stenko, Pauline Riddy of Naniamo and Verna Jolley of Sigamoore, B.C.; six grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. [Note: Polly Verigin passed away in 2000 at the age of 96.]

More About the R.M.S. Titanic

The following information is compiled from Wikipedia:

The Titanic was destined to be the pride of the White Star Line which was owned by an American company, but it still flew the Union Jack and carried a British crew. It is regarded as the last grand dream of the Gilded Age. It was designed to be the greatest achievement of an era of prosperity, confidence and propriety in a society of classes.

The Titanic was 883 feet long (1/6 of a mile), 92 feet wide and weighed 46,328 tons. She was 104 feet tall from keel to bridge, almost 35 feet of which were below the waterline…even so, she stood taller above the water than most urban buildings of the time. There were three real smokestacks; a fourth, dummy stack was added largely to increase the impression of her gargantuan size and power and to vent smoke from her numerous kitchens and galleys. She was the largest moveable object ever made by man. Her accommodations were the most modern and luxurious on any ocean, and included electric light and heat in every room, electric elevators, a swimming pool, a squash court (considered terribly modern), a Turkish Bath, a gymnasium with a mechanical horse and mechanical camel to keep riders fit, staterooms, and first class facilities which rivaled the best hotels of the time. The final construction cost was estimated at $75,000,000.00.

R.M.S. Titanic departing Souhampton on April 10, 1912.  Image source: F.G.O. Stuart.

On its maiden voyage, it set sail on April 10, 1912 en route to New York. After receiving passengers all along the European coast, the RMS Titanic left Queenstown, Ireland on April 11. It covered about 900 miles of the transatlantic crossing when it received various ice warnings. Ice flow was uncommon for that time of year, but the unseasonably warm winter allowed unprecedented amounts of ice to break loose from the arctic regions.

The Titanic was cruising at 20.5 knots when it struck an iceberg, towering at about 60 feet above the water.

The original design called for 32 lifeboats. However, White Star management felt that the boat deck would look cluttered, and reduced the number to 20, for a total lifeboat capacity of 1,178. This actually exceeded the regulations of the time, even though Titanic was capable of carrying more than 3,500 people (passengers and crew). Many of the lifeboats were set on to the water filled with less than half the number of passengers each was capable of holding.

Numerous expeditions were held to find the wreckage, but it took 73 years. On September 1, 1985, a French American scientific expedition led by Dr. Robert Ballard finally discovered and photographed the remains of the Titanic at a depth of 12, 460 feet on the ocean floor.

More About the S.S. Californian

The following information is reproduced from Dave Billnitzer’s website, The Titanic and The Californian:

At 10:20 p.m. on Sunday April 14, 1912, the Leyland Liner Californian, a cargo ship westbound from England to Boston, stopped at the eastern edge of an impenetrable ice field. Around 11:00 p.m., her Captain and Third Officer observed a light approaching from the east. Third Officer Groves thought she was a passenger liner; Captain Lord thought she was a small tramp steamer, somewhat like the Californian. Captain Lord went below; he later said he had seen her green starboard light while he was on deck. At 11:40 Groves thought he saw the other ship put her lights out and stop for the night; by now saw her red port light, and the ship seemed to be stopped, pointing north toward him.

At midnight, the watch changed, and Second Officer Stone and Apprentice Gibson took over from Groves. While Gibson went below decks on an errand, at 12:45 a.m., Stone saw a flash of light over the steamer, and as he watched he observed several more – white lights in the sky, like rockets. Stone notified Captain Lord. Gibson returned to the bridge and saw three more rockets himself – which like all the others burst into stars. He too notified Captain Lord. However, Lord neither aroused the wireless operator, nor came out on deck to see for himself. Finally, soon after 2 a.m. the other ship seemed to disappear, and at 2:40, Stone notified Lord one last time. When Stone went off duty at 4 a.m., he informed his relief, Chief Officer Stewart, about the rockets as well.

At 4:30 a.m., Captain Lord came back onto the bridge. Stewart repeated Stone’s story about the rockets to Lord. “Yes, I know, he has been telling me,” Lord answered. At 6:00 they received a wireless message from the Frankfurt, and then the Virginian, “Do you know the Titanic has struck a berg, and she is sinking?” Captain Lord started his engines and headed for the last known position of the Titanic. Within twenty-five minutes, Lord radioed to the Virginian that they were close enough see the rescue ship Carpathia taking on passengers from small boats. About this time, Stewart woke up Third Officer Groves with the announcement, “The Titanic has sunk, and the passengers are all in lifeboats in the water ahead of us.”  At 6:50 am Third Officer Groves arrived on the bridge and noticed that the Carpathia and the lifeboats were due east – it had taken them less than an hour to arrive at the same latitude as the lifeboats. When they finally arrived alongside the Carpathia, the last of the survivors from the Titanic were just being taken aboard.

S.S. Californian on the morning after the Titanic’s sinking.  Image Source: maritimequest.com. 

When the Californian resumed her course for Boston, her log for that day omitted any mention of the rockets seen during the night; nevertheless, Lord privately asked Stone and Gibson to write up separate affidavits describing what they had seen and reported to him. In the end, however, he did not share these accounts with the subsequent investigations. He also prepared a series of charts and maps illustrating what he had done and where his ship purportedly had been. Asked in London why he did this, he answered, “I knew at once there would be an inquiry over this.”

After the Californian arrived in Boston, the ship’s carpenter, James McGregor, told the story of how the rockets had been seen to an obscure newspaper in Clinton, Massachusetts. In response to rumors about the rockets, Captain Lord told reporters in Boston that his ship had been 20 miles away and that the location was a “state secret.” Over the next few days he denied that anyone on his ship had seen rockets, denied that he had asked his Second Officer for a private report, and went so far as to say that Stewart (not Stone) had been on watch at the time. Stone also denied having written a report, even though the document he had signed was by now in Lord’s possession.

On the same day, Californian crewman Ernest Gill swore to an affidavit for a Boston newspaper, that he too had seen rockets, and his story caused a sensation. In due time, Lord was summoned first to Washington DC for the US Inquiry into the Titanic disaster, where he conceded that he had been told of one rocket. Three weeks later, in London, he and all of his officers were summoned, where it came out that eight rockets had been seen and reported to him, three times. He agreed that “it might have been” distress signals that were seen, and he had remained in the chartroom. Both Inquiries found him to have been within sight of the sinking Titanic and declared that he had not responded properly to signals of distress.

Although he lost his job with the Californian, Lord soon found work with another shipping line, and life continued for him.

In the 1950s, with the publication of the book and movie A Night to Remember, which re-told the story of the Californian’s proximity to the Titanic, Lord enlisted the services of Leslie Harrison, General Secretary of the Mercantile Marine Service Association, to help him clear his name of the 1912 charges. For more than thirty years Leslie Harrison wrote petitions, articles, books and pamphlets with an eye to convince the British government to re-examine the 1912 findings on the “Californian Incident.” In 1992, after thirty years of petitioning and seven years after the wreck of the Titanic was discovered, the British government formally conducted an investigation into the Californian’s involvement in the Titanic disaster.


It should be noted that some Titanic enthusiasts have questioned the authenticity of Polly (nee Harelkin) Verigin’s claim to have been aboard the Californian when it passed within a dozen miles of the sinking ship.

Detractors point out that the Californian’s captain, Stanley Lord, in the US and British Inquiries that followed the Titanic disaster, emphatically denied having any passengers aboard his ship.  His claim is lent credence by the lack of any passenger manifest (neither at the U.S. National Archives nor Library & Archives Canada) for the Californian’s voyage departing from London, England on April 5, 1912 and arriving in the US port of Boston, Massachusetts on April 19, 1912.

On the other hand, it is plausible that Captain Lord may have lied about not having passengers aboard the Californian.  Indeed, he would have had a strong motive for doing so.  In the days following the disaster, Lord publicly denied that anyone on his ship had seen the Titanic’s emergency flares.  If it came to light that there were passengers (i.e. independent witnesses) aboard his ship with contradictory accounts, this would have seriously damaged Lord’s credibility and brought into question whether he had properly responded to the signals of distress.

As it turns out, there is good reason to doubt the veracity of Captain Lord’s account of what happened aboard the Californian the night of April 14, 1912.  His testimony was flatly refuted by members of his own crew, including his Second Officer, Herbert Stone, the ship’s carpenter, James McGregor, and crewman Ernest Gill, all of whom swore affidavits that they had seen the emergency flares fired from the sinking Titanic that night.

Moreover, there is also evidence to suggest that Captain Lord may have doctored records to support his version of the facts.  For instance, when the Californian resumed her course for Boston on April 15, 1912, her log for that day omitted any mention of the emergency flares seen during the night.  It is not inconceivable, therefore, that Captain Lord may have destroyed or altered the Californian’s passenger manifest to erase any record of passengers aboard his ship during the voyage, so as to remove any information identifying witnesses.

All things considered, the absence of a ship passenger manifest for the Californian neither proves, nor disproves, Captain Lord’s contention that there were no passengers aboard his ship during the voyage in question.

At the same time, if Captain Lord’s assertion was correct, and the Californian had no passengers, then one might expect to find another ship manifest listing the Harelkins among her passengers.  However, such is not the case.  On the contrary, the Harelkin family appears in Library & Archives Canada records of passengers arriving at the US port of Baltimore, Massachusetts, destined for Canada, in the spring of 1912 (LAB Microfilm #T-4692).  Curiously, the ship on which they arrived and the date of their arrival is not listed; instead they are identified as “miscellaneous Boston arrivals”.  Despite this ambiguity, the record clearly documents that the Harelkin family arrived on US soil at the same port, and at approximately the same time, as the Californian.  While this neither proves, nor disproves, that the Harelkins arrived aboard the Californian, it is compelling circumstantial evidence to the possibility of such an event.

In any case, it is difficult to imagine why Polly (nee Harelkin) Verigin, a devout and strictly religious Doukhobor, would have fabricated such an event.  It is also easy to understand why her family did not come forth earlier regarding what happened the night of Titanic’s sinking.  After all, at the time, they were illiterate Russian immigrants with no knowledge of the English language, nor a full understanding of what they had observed.  Ultimately, in the absence of some corroborative evidence (such as a passport, visa or other record stating the date and vessel on which the Harelkin family arrived on US soil), it remains an open question whether Polly (nee Harelkin) Verigin’s account is just a fanciful imagining or childhood memory; or whether it offers compelling new evidence about what really happened the night Titanic sank.