If there were a turn-of-the-century equivalent of a TSA security line, Pier 54 at West 14th Street on May 1, 1915 may have been it. The Lusitania, the imposing ocean liner, was set to embark from the pier that day, but not before “every precaution possible was taken to prevent any suspicious person from getting on board,” wrote the Times. Each passenger lined up, single file, and claimed his or her baggage. Packages were opened and checked before boarding. Tickets were scrutinized. Detectives were stationed at the end of each gangway.
A week before the Lusitania’s scheduled departure, the German embassy apparently placed a newspaper ad warning Americans that, in war, the seas were a battleground, “and travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.” By then, the Lusitania was no longer the spectacle it had been when it first came to New York in 1907, but she was still big, and fast, and very famous. She was also a British ship on an Atlantic route — New York to Liverpool — that would lead her straight into combat territory. Security had to be tight.
The Lusitania pulled off the pier a little after noon on May 1 — “undiminished,” as the Times described it. In this picture above, the liner floats ghostlike on the Hudson. The Lusitania was just 11 miles off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915 when a torpedo, fired from a German U-boat, pierced its hull. Another explosion blasted from the belly of the ship. The enormous ship sunk in 15 minutes. Almost 1,200 of the nearly 2,000 people onboard died.
Of course, deep below deck, the Lusitania was packed tight with weapons and ammunition bound for British allies. But the assault jolted America. Though it took two more years for the U.S. to formally enter World War I, the Lusitania’s attack shook the nation out of its isolationist innocence.