Smithtown Historical Society honors one of its own at Titanic Gala

Smithtown Historical Society honors one of its own at Titanic Gala

James Clinch Smith poses for a portrait with his sisters.

By Kevin Redding

For the Smithtown Historical Society’s upcoming fundraising event, residents are encouraged to dress to the nines, party like it’s 1912 and shout at the top of their lungs, “I’m the king of the world!”

The organization’s Titanic Gala will “set sail” Saturday, April 8, at 7 p.m. at the Smithtown Elks Lodge, where those in attendance will dine and dance in Edwardian-era costumes, provided by Port Jefferson’s Nan Guzzetta, as if they’re first-class passengers on the infamous ship that more than 100 years ago collided with an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic Ocean.

James Clinch Smith

Upon entering the lodge’s expansive ballroom, residents will be able to pose for a photo with an actor portraying the Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith and survey reproductions of artifacts once seen in the massive ship, including china and jewelry. The event’s $85 entrance fee will go toward the historical society’s educational programs as well as the maintenance of its buildings.

Although the night will act as a celebration of the more joyous aspects of the Titanic — and give attendees an excuse to quote Jack and Rose — members of the historical society organized the event because the ship’s tragic end hits close to home in Smithtown.

James Clinch Smith, a descendant of the legendary Richard “Bull Rider” Smith, founder of Smithtown and one of town’s wealthiest and most prominent residents at the turn of the 20th century, was among the 1,517 passengers aboard the Titanic who died during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City in the early morning of April 15, 1912.

But before he ultimately drowned, the 56-year-old Long Islander saved as many lives as he could as the ship went down. “He was really a hero on that day,” Maureen Smilow, a board member on the historical society, said. “We want to remember the heroism and participation of [someone] from Smithtown at that time and remember him. And there were other people besides Smith on the Titanic who lived in this area. In addition to having a good time, we should remember the people who gave their lives.”

Brad Harris, the historical society’s president, said the group has long been in awe of Smith’s legacy and the idea of honoring him has been in the back of their minds for years. “As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s great to make people aware that we had in our midst an individual who got caught in this horrible tragedy and did his best to save others,” Harris said. “It’s a way to highlight the story of his life and commemorate his memory.”

Smith, alongside his friend Archibald Gracie, who survived the sinking, lifted women, children and babies into lifeboats as the water rose higher and higher on the ship’s deck. His heroics were documented in Gracie’s book “The Truth about the Titanic.” In it, Gracie wrote: “There could not be a braver man than James Clinch Smith … He was the embodiment of coolness and courage during the whole period of the disaster.”

Gracie added that words failed to express his feelings of admiration for Smith’s conduct amid such chaos. “The highest tribute I could pay him is this plain recital of what he did in the way of self-sacrifice,” he wrote, “knowing no such word as fear in saving the lives of others.” Born and raised in Smithtown Branch, Smith grew up to practice law with his father, the prominent Judge John Lawrence Smith. After both his parents died in the late 1800s he inherited 250 acres of land and millions of dollars, further fueling his passion for high-society living, which included horse racing and polo.

He wound up on the Titanic, heading back to Smithtown, following a visit with his sick wife in Cherbourg, France. Although his body was never recovered following the disaster, a memorial service for him was held at the St. James Episcopal Church in Smithtown on May 11, 1912. Photos of Smith and his family will be on display at the gala.

While not completely accurate, the gala’s dinner menu echoes what was served to first-class passengers on the Titanic, with dishes that include hors d’oeuvres, chicken marsala, sliced pork loin, steak with merlot reduction and a butter cream cake dessert. For further authenticity, the Kings Park High School orchestra will play live music that was performed on the ship during its maiden voyage.

The historical society’s executive director, Marianne Howard, said she’s thrilled that so many people so far have been enthusiastic about the event. “Everyone is getting excited and wanting to learn more about history,” she said. “People are doing a lot of research on the social and cultural aspects of history at that time [1912] in order to find out what people wore, what people would’ve eaten. I’m looking forward to seeing people enjoy themselves while celebrating and honoring our history.”

Tickets for the Titanic Gala are still available. To order, please call 631-265-6768 or visit