In the early 1900's Germany had possession of the Blue Riband and Cunard's main rival, the White Star Line, had been bought by J.P. Morgan and was now a US owned company. It was at this time that Cunard formulated plans for a two way shuttle of the north Atlantic.
By 1903 Cunard had finalized plans with the British government for a loan of £2,600,000 to build two great liners at 30,000 tons and close to 800 feet each, with a top cruising speed of 24 knots. This would ensure that Britain would once again have the Blue Riband in their hands and thus regain national pride.
Lusitania was built at John Brown Co. in Scotland and her sister Mauretania was built at Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson in Newcastle England. These two ship would be built at the same time by rival ship builders in an attempt to put out the 'better ship.' Lusitania was slightly smaller and shorter then her sister but other than that, these ships looked very much alike on the outside.
The most noticeable difference between the two was that Lusitania had canister like hinge topped air vents (which looked less cluttered but needed constant replacing due to damage on rough seas) whereas Mauretania used oversized 'question mark' vents. These vessels had very different interiors, both luxurious. Lusitania had a "cool elegance" her rooms were done in plaster and wood giving her a lighter feel whereas Mauretania had dark wood.
September 7, 1907 R.M.S. Lusitania left Southampton on her maiden voyage for Queenstown and New York (It was estimated that over 200,000 people gathered to witness the ship's departure). On the Lusitania's second voyage she took the Blue Riband from the German ship Deutschland. The Lusitania and Mauretania would be the fastest on the Atlantic run, they were nicknamed the Atlantic greyhounds. In June 1908 the Lusitania's three blade propellers were replaced with improved four blade versions and in November Captain William Turner was appointed to command the Lusitania, leaving his command only to take Aquitania on her maiden voyage in 1914.
August 4, 1914 Britain declared war on Germany throwing Lusitania into World War 1. Admiralty requested Lusitania return to Liverpool for war duty, however upon arrival it was decided that they did not need the Lusitania as an armed merchant cruiser. Still, they paid for the ship to remain at Liverpool to be used at their disposal. She was returned to Cunard later that month and used on a monthly return voyage from Liverpool to New York. One can only wonder what her career would have been like had the been placed into military service along with her sister, Mauretania.
On May 1, 1915, Lusitania pulled away from Pier 54 in New York, amongst her passengers a sprinkling of famous and wealthy people. The cargo was entered on the manifest as foodstuffs, metal rods, ingots and boxes of cartridges. Controversy about the true nature of the cargo would persist for many years over whether she was carrying weapons bound for England. On May 7, Lusitania entered what was called the "danger zone", waters in which enemy submarines might be expected, so as precaution Captain Turner ordered all the lifeboats to be swung out and all the bulkhead doors to be closed. Yet Captain Turner made two fatal mistakes, he slowed down because he was worried by fog, and he manoeuvred too close to shore, where enemy subs often lurked.
At 2.00 pm the passengers were finishing their lunch. At 2.15 pm Lusitania was 10 to 15 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, with the weather clear and the sea smooth. Captain Turner then heard someone shout, "There is a torpedo coming!" Immediately afterwards there was a small bang, like a door slamming, followed by a loud explosion on the starboard side, between the third and fourth funnels which tore a whole in her hull and ripped two lifeboats from their davits. (The second explosion thought at the time to be a second torpedo was later confirmed as an internal explosion, the source of which is still being debated to this day). Captain Turner ordered the lifeboats readied as he tried to run his ship at full speed into the Irish coast, so mockingly close.
The stricken Lusitania immediately took on a heavy list to starboard and only half the lifeboats could be launched. Several lifeboats launched in haste by an untrained crew overturned, spilling women and children into the cold sea. One person was sucked into one of the funnels and shot back out as the boiler exploded (he lived to tell the tale). Captain Turner remained on the bridge giving orders until the Lusitania foundered after 20 minutes taking 1,198 lives. Thankfully currents caused many of the survivors not in lifeboats to wash up on shore. Many people blamed Captain Turner, who survived, however others said he did the best he could and more.
The sinking outraged the USA who lost over 100 people, they could not believe how savage 20th century war had become. The fact that the Germans sank a civilian ship flying the then neutral US flag helped to awake the sleeping giant and inevitably the US declared war on Germany.
The Lusitania lies in just 295 feet of water making this ship easy picking. In the 1980's salvagers removed two of Lusitania bow anchors and three of the four bronze propellers. The Lusitania's hull is in one torn and twisted piece, split at the bow, a sad echo of her former glory. The hull has collapsed to half it's original width and the decks have slid down to starboard. The superstructure has all but disappeared. The ship is also covered in fishing nets making her hard to explore.