From the Texas Panhandle to the RMS Titanic: Alfred Rowe’s life and death

The CW39 Houston

MCLEAN, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — The Texas Panhandle is full of historic events, places, and people. They impact people in ways they never could have imagined.

A person who may be ranked high on the list is Alfred Rowe, a man who lived quite a life in the Panhandle and found himself in one of history’s most famous disasters: the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic.

Alfred Rowe was born on February 24, 1853, in Lima, Peru. In 1876, he attended the Royal Agricultural College in Gloucestershire, England. Two years later he moved to the United States and spent time in Colorado learning the cattle business.

In 1878, Rowe moved to Donley County in the Texas Panhandle with a herd of cattle. 

The RO Ranch:

“Alfred Rowe and his brothers bought a large amount of land in the Texas Panhandle,” said Jennifer Evan, a volunteer at the McLean-Alanreed Area Museum. “They had a very large ranch.” 

It is here he established the RO Ranch with his brothers, Vincent and Bernard.

In 1885, they built a ranch house, which still stands to this day.

According to the Texas State Historical Association‘s (TSHA) Handbook of Texas, the trio made improvements to the ranch’s facilities over the years. In 1898, Rowe bought out his brothers’ interests.

Evans said Rowe owned and leased more than 200,000 acres of land for the RO Ranch.

TSHA said after Rowe’s death, the family continued to run the ranch. In 1917, a former ranch hand-arranged to purchase the remaining acreage and cattle from the Rowe’s.

According to TSHA, in 1910, Rowe moved his family to England, leaving someone else to manage the ranch. He would return at least twice a year to check up on the RO. His last trip was on the R.M.S. Titanic.

Alfred Rowe and McLean, Texas:

Alfred Rowe is also credited with helping to establish McLean, Texas in southeastern Gray County.

“There wasn’t really a town here,” said Evans. “There were some settlers around and they had a railroad … what they didn’t have was a switch to send their cattle to market.”

Former McLean, Texas Depot | Courtesy: McLean-Alanreed Area Museum

Evans said other ranches around the area had the same problem. She said driving the cattle to Kansas was difficult.

Rowe needed a switch on the railroad to solve his problem. Evans said he went to the railroad commissioner, William P. McLean, and talked him into putting a switch in what would soon be McLean.

TSHA said in 1901 the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Texas Railroad Company dug a water well and built a switch and section house. He also laid out the town.

“When you think about what a difference that made for people to be able just to push them [the cattle] in into town here, a 15 mile trip into town for us, you know, and put them on the train, yeah, it’s it’s huge,” said Evans.

McLean was booming.

“I have letters that my great grandmother wrote back to Missouri to her her family telling her this little town is really on the move, you know, and this is 1909, 1910,” said Evans. “Businesses were popping up everywhere, and that wouldn’t have happened if the railroad hadn’t made a stop here.”

Evans said she believes Rowe had a lot to do with that.

“It’s it’s my home,” said Evans. “I’m grateful to him. I’m grateful to him, but he started out with a plan and the plat of the town was his plan. He didn’t just let it happen. You know, he made a plan and that plan was for the citizens. It was not just for him, it was for everybody.”

Rowe, Texas:

The small town of Rowe in southeastern Donley County was established in 1890. It took its name from Alfred Rowe. It was located about a mile to the northwest of Hedley. 

TSHA said the town had a post office, a church, a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, a general store, a hardware store, a bank, a gin, and a newspaper, in addition to the depot and cattle-loading pens. Two doctors had opened practice by 1902.

According to TSHA, disputes among town leaders prompted residents to propose moving the town a mile to the southeast, and by 1907, the people started moving their homes and businesses to this new location named Hedley.

The only thing that is left to show the long-forgotten town is the Rowe Cemetery.

Cemetery located near the former town of Rowe, Texas.

Alfred’s Personal Life:

Alfred Rowe | Courtesy of McLean-Alanreed Area Museum

Evans said Rowe was well-liked among the people. He also had the tendency to disappear and pop back up.

“I would call him eccentric. I think he was a little bit eccentric,” said Evans. “They said that he would be out on the trail on horseback with his black bag that he carried everywhere he went, and that they would go by a train depot and he would just say, ‘See y’all later,’ and he just get on the train. He might be gone three months, you know, and then show back up here.”

Evans said her grandfather, who was 10 years old in 1912, knew Rowe and would share stories with her.

“He just remembered that he was very polite,” said Evans. “He was kind and polite to everyone here and, you know.”

Evans said Rowe became a citizen of the United States.

“His son clarified that in a letter to Mrs. Vera Back, who was a longtime teacher here in McLean,” said Evans.

Back wrote letters to Rowe’s family in the 60s.

“The son clarified that yes, he was a citizen; that he thought as a landowner he should be a citizen of the United States,” said Evans.

Alfred’s Family:

In 1901, Rowe married Constance Kingsley. TSHA said she was a cousin of the British author Charles Kingsley.

The two had five children, one of whom died as an infant. The fifth child, Alfred, Jr., was born five months after the Titanic disaster.

Rowe Children | Courtesy Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum

What’s in the Bag?:

That black bag that Evans mentioned was quite the topic in town. She said her grandfather would tell her stories about it.

“He remembered seeing Mr. Rowe on the street, you know, walking down the street always nattily dressed and carrying a black satchel,” said Evans. “That was what everyone kind of keyed in on was that satchel … granddad said all the kids in school were dying to know what was in that satchel that he, even when he was horseback, he would loop the handle of that satchel over his saddle horn, you know, and, and take it with him.”

Evans said everyone wanted to know what was in the bag.

“There was great curiosity in this town about what was in that bag, and granddad was among those, you know. He wanted to know what was in the bag, too. They, of course, imagined large sums of money and jewels, and all sorts of wonderful things in it.”

Rowe Boards Titanic:

Alfred Rowe boarded the R.M.S. Titanic in Southampton, England on April 10, 1912. 

This was the maiden voyage for the ship that had been deemed “unsinkable.” 

Titanic made a stop at Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland before setting sail across the North Atlantic Ocean, bound for New York.

“We do have his diary, and so when you go to that page, you can open it up and it says ‘booked a ticket on the Titanic,'” said Stephanie Price, the marketing director at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas.

He had a first-class ticket to what was, at the time, the largest man-made moving object in the world.

Rowe Describes Titanic as ‘Positive Danger’:

While there were plenty of people who praised the ship, Rowe had differing opinions.

According to a BBC News article in 2007, Rowe sent a letter to his wife from the ship’s stop in Queenstown. In it, BBC reports he said:

Mr dearest girl, she is too big, you can’t find your way about and it takes you too long to get anywhere.

She has no excessive speed to compensate for all this and is a positive danger to all other shipping in port.

Alfred Rowe

The BBC also reports the letter described Titanic’s near-miss with another ship as it departed Southampton.

“Mr. Rowe was on a lot of ships crossing the Atlantic. He didn’t just come once over here and stay and then went back for a little visit. I mean, he was back and forth. So he was on a lot of ships and, you know, I mean, you notice things after you’ve done it over and over,” said Evans.

Rowe’s Death on Titanic:

Undated artist impression showing the 14 April 1912 shipwreck of the British luxury passenger liner Titanic off the Nova-Scotia coasts, during its maiden voyage. The supposedly ‘Unsinkable’ Titanic set sail down Southampton Water en-route to New York on 10 April 1912 and met disaster on 14 April 1912 after hitting an iceberg off Newfoundland shortly before midnight and sinking two hours later, killing about 1,500 passengers and ship personnel. Reproduction d’un dessin représentant le naufrage du paquebot “Le Titanic”, dans la nuit du 14 au 15 avril 1912 dans l’Atlantique nord, après avoir heurté un iceberg au cours de son voyage inaugural. (Photo credit should read OFF/AFP via Getty Images)

On the night of April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m., the Titanic struck an iceberg 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

Once the crew realized that the Titanic would not stay afloat, the order was given for women and children to board the lifeboats.

TSHA said that Rowe, a strong swimmer, refused to board a lifeboat until others were saved.

Rowe was one of the estimated 1,500 who lost their lives in the tragedy.

“He made that one decision. There were how many ships leaving, he could have picked a different day could have picked a different week, but picks the Titanic and ultimately that was his end,” said Price.

Rowe’s was the 109th body of 340 that was pulled from the water by the Cable Ship Mackay-Bennett.

His body was shipped back to his family in England and buried in Liverpool.

“His story didn’t really end there because RO Ranch … is still in existence, and numerous families of cowboys have gone through the schools here at McLean, and it’s a great place to live great place that he started,” said Evans.

The Black Bag Discovered?:

No black bag was found with Rowe’s body, but that did not stop the small town rumors.

“The word that went around town was they found his body on a glacier and the and the black satchel was frozen to his hand, you know, which apparently was not true,” said Evans.

The story gets more interesting from there. Evans said she was looking through a book that shows artifacts they brought up from the wreck when she came across a photo on the last page of a black leather satchel. The book said the bag had large sums of money and jewels.

“I don’t know, you know, you might think there are 1,500 people on board that ship that could be anybody’s satchel,” said Evans. “It is fun to think about and, I mean, it could be, you know. I mean, it could very well be because most of the men that carried satchels, that’s not what they had in it. You know, I mean, doctors carried black satchels. Lawyers carried black satchels. They had papers in it, they had medical supplies, they didn’t have large sums of money and jewels. So, you know, why not? It’s I think it’s a fun thing to think.”


“I’m sorry he was lost on the Titanic. So sorry, you know, but the Titanic is bigger than life, and in McLean, Alford row was bigger than life. He was kind of a celebrity in town, you know, with that black bag in his hand.”

“I think it’s also interesting that a museum in the Texas Panhandle has a connection to the Titanic, you know. The Titanic, born in Belfast, set sail out of England and Ireland and was headed for New York, nowhere near the Texas Panhandle,” said Price. “Yet, we have a connection here at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum and in the Texas Panhandle.”

Those interested in learning more about Rowe and the RO Ranch can visit the McLean-Alanreed Area Museum in McLean, Texas.

WATCH: Evans explains more about what is on display at the museum:

WATCH: Price talks about what this history means to her and the passion of the PPHM:

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