When I’m working with the preservation team at Oakland Cemetery, it feels like I’m working in a library of souls. I see the titles, but can’t read their stories. This marker caught my eye. “Lost at Sea” in Atlanta? Curious and out of place, I thought. I did some research. Here’s what I found:
Tuesday, April 30, 1918. War is raging in Europe, but in New York City it is a warm spring day. Atlantan August Denk, age 64, boards the steamship City of Athens. He’s bound for Savannah, Georgia to pay a call on his two daughters. Carrying 135 souls and cargo, The City of Athens is part of the Ocean Steamship Company, a stalwart of the coastal transportation network offering regular service between Savannah, New York, and Boston. Denk had come north to Brooklyn a month before for what the 21st century would call a “site visit” to one of his employers’ mills. He works for the Elsas Family, owners of the mammoth Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills, one of Atlanta’s largest employers. Denk is one of their oldest employees, having been with them for over 40 years, and now serves as their Treasurer. As night falls and The City of Athens steams south along the Delaware coast, a heavy fog sets in. Due to fear of German U-boats, wartime regulations required all ships to “run dark,” meaning all illumination was nearly extinguished. Before turning in, Denk exchanges some pleasantries with a fellow passenger and Atlantan, Dr. E.L. Brooks. Both agree it would be a cold night to be in the water.
Several hours later, just past 1:00 a.m., a terrific collision rocks the City of Athens. The French Cruiser Gloire, on U-boat patrol along the eastern seaboard, has just sliced through the bow of the City of Athens. Mayhem and panic ensue. Passengers stumble up onto the main deck. Lifeboats are hurriedly deployed. One capsizes, tossing all into the cold sea. The City of Athens tilts down, and then, in just seven minutes, disappears. Sixty-seven passengers are “lost at sea.” Among them is August Denk. A memorial service is held for Mr. Denk a week later. It is unknown if a body was ever recovered.
The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill is still a landmark on Atlanta’s skyline. Today, it houses condos and apartments. As they say about his boss who is buried nearby, August Denk is keeping a watchful eye on his former place of employment. Its smokestack is visible through the trees beyond his grave.
Eric Menninger is a preservation intern at Historic Oakland Foundation. He has been a documentary producer and director, history teacher, grant writer, and home renovator.