Mount Allison scientist solves Titanic mystery

A tree-ring expert at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., has solved a mystery for PBS's History Detectives program, which asked him to determine whether the wood in a family picture frame came from a staircase railing on the Titanic.

Tree-ring analysis determines whether wood in picture frame came from sunken ocean liner

Elyse Luray, right, of PBS's History Detectives program, holds a picture frame that some allege is made of wood from a stair rail on the Titanic. Standing next to her is Colin Laroque, head of Mount Allison University's dendrochronology lab, who was asked to verify the wood's provenance. (Mount Allison University)

Scientists at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., have solved a Titanic mystery for PBS's History Detectives, marking the first time the public television program has gone outside the U.S. for expertise.

An upcoming episode of the show, which probes the facts behind popular folklore, family legends and the history of interesting objects, promises to reveal whether the wood in a family picture frame is, as some of its owners claim, from the railing of a staircase on the ocean liner that famously sank in the Atlantic a century ago.

The double photo frame is a family heirloom whose provenance even the owners can't agree on. One family member believes it to be from the Titanic while another says the wood from which it was fashioned came from another ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania, which sank in 1915, three years after the Titanic.

Frame was a gift from carpenter

The object was obtained by a grandfather of the current owners who worked on a boat that rushed to the scene of the Titanic sinking, hoping to rescue survivors but arriving to find only corpses and floating wreckage.

A friend of the grandfather, who was the carpenter of the ship he worked on, carved the picture frame and gave it to the grandfather as a gift — that much the family agrees on.

But while one relative says the carpenter used oak and teak from the wreckage of a railing of a grand staircase that led to the Titanic's ballroom, another says the wood came from the Lusitania.

Mount Allison's Colin Laroque, an expert in tree-ring analysis who teaches in Mount Alison's department of geography and environment, was asked by the family to solve the mystery.

Laroque, whose team has also dated other objects, including a hockey stick, a violin and a canoe, says tree rings can offer much more information than just a tree's age.

"We use dendrochronology, or tree-ring analysis, to give us insight into past climates, past ecosystem dynamics and even past human activities over hundreds of years," he said in a Mount Allison news release.

Assessed frame from afar

To make his determination, which won't be revealed until the show airs on PBS on Aug. 7, Laroque and the geography students who assisted him did not have the benefit of working with the frame itself but had to assess it at a distance.

"It was a challenge, because we had to do our analysis without the actual object, instead using scanned images," Laroque said.

"We needed to work out where the oak was from…The Lusitania was built using wood from Scotland while the Titanic was built with wood from Ireland."

The Titanic was one of three luxury ocean liners built in the early 20th century and known as the Olympic class. Laroque compared the wood from the stair rail with other wood from the Titanic's sister ships.

"It was pretty exciting, because if it did turn out to be from the Titanic, it would be pretty valuable as there are not that many items left that did not go down with the ship," Laroque said.

Locals participate in filming

Laroque's team also helped the PBS film crew set up a number of shots for the production when they came to Sackville to film parts of the show.

"We got people in Amherst to remake the handrail picture frame and gathered items for an ocean shot of flotsam in Halifax, part of a re-enactment of the sinking," Laroque said.

The Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, on its maiden voyage.

The Lusitania sank on May 7, 1915. The steamship was sunk by a German submarine during the First World War off the coast of Ireland.

With files from Canadian Press