Albert Clay Bilicke was born on 22nd June 1861 in Marshfield (known as Coos Bay since 1944), Coos County, Oregon, in the United States of America, the son of Carl Gustavus and Caroline Bilicke (née Sigismund). His parents had been born in Prussia, and had immigrated to the United States of America, moving from city to city, and state to state quite frequently, before settling in the city of Tombstone, Arizona. From 1879 to 1882, the family operated the very fashionable Cosmopolitan Hotel on Allen Street in the city. Albert was a Freemason, and an eye-witness to the famous “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, which occurred in Tombstone on the 26th October 1881!
He later moved to Los Angeles, California, where he became a wealthy builder, property developer, and hotelier, being the owner of The Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles, which, at the time it was built, was the tallest and largest hotel in the city. He also owned a number of other 4-star hotels, including the Hollenbeck Hotel, which was his usual residence. He was also the president of the Bilicke-Rowan Fireproof Building Company, and many others.
On the 10th September 1900, he married Gladys Huff at Niagara Falls, New York State, and they went on to have three children, two sons and a daughter. Albert Constant, born in 1902, Nancy Caroline, born in 1903, and Carl Archibald, born in 1907. In 1915, the family home was at 699 Monterey Road, South Pasadena.
In the spring of 1915, Albert Bilicke needed to travel to Europe on business, and also decided to take the opportunity for a holiday, and having decided to take his wife with him; he booked saloon passage through his Chicago office, on the May sailing of the Lusitania sailing which was scheduled to leave New York on the morning of 1st May. Having left his home town at the end of April, he and his wife travelled by rail to New York and joined the liner at the Cunard berth at Pier 54. Once on board, (with ticket number 19841) they were allocated room B48, which was under the control of First Class Waiter John Roach who came from Liverpool and was serving as a first class bedroom steward on what became the liner’s last ever voyage.
The liner’s sailing was then delayed until the early afternoon as she had to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the Anchor Liner
Cameronia, which had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty for war service as a troop ship, at the end of April. Six days out of New York, on the afternoon of 7th May 1915, the
Lusitania was torpedoed by the German submarine U-20 within sight of the coast of southern Ireland.
According to Adolph and Mary Hoehling in their book The Last Voyage of the Lusitania before she sank, Albert Bilicke and his wife managed to get into Lifeboat No. 17, which was on the starboard side of the vessel, the same side which was hit by the torpedo. Unfortunately, in the panic of the occasion, the crew trying to lower the lifeboat lost control of one end which then tipped up violently, spilling its occupants into the sea. Apparently, both Mr. and Mrs. Bilicke were amongst those who suffered this fate, which was later described by fellow saloon passenger Robert J. Timmis in the book: -
Timmins (sic) looked over to see a lifeboat dangling from one of its falls ... it had been lowered too hastily by one end and its occupants were spilled out before it had quite reached the water. Timmins watched with a strange, almost stolid objectivity as though this were something detached from his own existence.
Among those who had been in the boat were A. C. Bilicke, fifty-four-year-old builder and real estate man of Los Angeles, Mrs. Bilicke, and the Reverend David Loynd, British-born Baptist minister from Richmond, Indiana, and his wife, Alice. Timmins continued to stare at the half-smashed boat, the crushed bodies in the water, a few survivors swimming.
Although Gladys Bilicke survived her ordeal, Albert was killed and as his body was never recovered from the sea afterwards and identified, he has no known grave. He was aged 53 years.
Immediately after the sinking, two cables arrived in Los Angeles which gave false hope to the family members that both Albert Bilicke and his wife had survived. The first one stated that both of them had survived and the other simply said -
SAFE. BILICKE. Unfortunately, this latter one had been erroneously sent by friends at Queenstown to refer only to Mrs. Bilicke, who by that time had made the sad and lonely journey to London!
On the 11th May, the American Ambassador in London sent a telegram to the American Consul in Queenstown, giving a detailed description of Albert Bilicke, which stated: -
Age: about 53. Height; about 5 feet 6 inches. Eyes; blue. Hair; Sandy and thin. On abdomen, 2 scars from operation. Clothes: Suit, dark material. In the pocket, a wallet with gold mountings containing English money and papers. Little notebooks in pockets. Watch and chain, gold and platinum. On watch is monogram A.C.B. Ring, turquoise and 2 diamonds. Underwear: linen mesh, short and drawers. Abdominal belt, sink hose caught up with gilt clasps. Shirt marked on sleeve by monogram A.C.B. and back of collar marked “Sulka & Co., Paris & New York”. Cuff buttons set with light blue sapphires. Collar, white turnover. Neck tie, dark. Stick pin, emeralds surrounded with diamonds.
Despite this very comprehensive description, no remains or property matching the description were ever found.
Waiter Roach who had looked after the Bilickes in room B48 did survive the sinking, however, and eventually made it back to his home in Liverpool.
Gladys Bilicke travelled from Queenstown to London within a few days of the disaster, where she recovered from her ordeal and any injuries she might have suffered. On the 26th May, she boarded the
S.S. Philadelphia at Liverpool and disembarked in New York on the 4th June. A letter she had sent to an unidentified friend in Los Angeles during her stay in England was released to the newspapers and its contents widely syndicated. It was published in the 5th June edition of The Morning Oregonian: -
… “My husband and I were in our stateroom when the first torpedo struck,” the letter reads. We rushed upon the deck. The boats were being lowered and we took our places in one. There were about 50 persons in the boat, and before it reached the water it shot down suddenly and plunged beneath the water, carrying us all with it.
“Mr. Bilicke never came up. I fought my way to the surface. It seemed hours before I came up near a floating spar or piece of timber. Several men were clinging to it, and one helped me obtain a hold. Hours passed and with them one man after another muttered ‘goodby’ (sic.) and dropped into the water, until not one remained. But I believe I was possessed of superhuman strength, and held on for four hours until I was picked up.”
Albert Bilicke’s will was filed for probate in San Francisco on 18th May 1915. His widow and a Mr. A.B.C. Dohrmann, a local businessman and family friend, were appointed executors and his three children legatees. His estate was valued at $2,706,000! Apart from $50,000, which was distributed to charities, friends, and his sister, the remainder was divided up between his wife and three children – his wife receiving one-third, and each of the children receiving two-ninths.
Despite inheriting Albert’s extensive estate, his widow and children filed a claim for compensation for his death, which was decided by the Mixed Claims Commission. Gladys was awarded the sum of $50,000.00, while his three children received the sum of $30,000 each.
Albert’s eldest son, Albert Constant Bilicke enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940, serving during World War II and the Korean Conflict. When he retired in 1962, he had attained the rank of Colonel. He died in Riverside, California, in 1995, aged 92 years.
On 17th July 1923, Albert’s only daughter, Nancy, married Henry de Roulet. She died in Los Angeles in 1941, aged 37 years.
The youngest of the Bilicke children, Carl Archibald died in Los Angeles in 1992. He was aged 85 years.
Gladys Bilicke never remarried and died in Los Angeles on the 3rd March 1943, aged 77 years.
1870 U.S. Federal Census, 1880 U.S. Federal Census, 1900 U.S. Federal Census, 1910 U.S. Federal Census, U.S. Passport Applications 1795 – 1925, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Cunard Records, Mixed Claims Commission Docket No. 226 & 272, Last Voyage of the Lusitania, Nyle Monday, Deaths at Sea 1871 – 1968, PRO 22/71, PRO BT 100/345, Missouri Wills and Probate Records 1766 – 1988, David Ramsay, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, The Morning Oregonian, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly