Canada has had its fair share of shipwrecks. From the earliest ships to come to the area, there have always been the dangers of sinking. Some shipwrecks miraculously kill none, others kill many. Some, like the Edmund Fitzgerald, become part of our collective cultural consciousness.
Today, I am going to look at Canada’s Titanic, the Empress of Ireland, Canada’s worst maritime disaster.
It was the largest peacetime maritime disaster in our nation’s history, and it happened right in the St. Lawrence River near Rimouski, Quebec.
Before we talk about the disaster, let’s talk about the ship.
The Empress of Ireland was an oceangoing passenger ship built by Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering out of Scotland. Commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Steamships for the route between Liverpool and Quebec City, the Empress was the second of two twin ocean liners.
The other was Empress of Britain.
The Empress of Ireland was built in 1904 and could travel at speeds of 33 km/h, and had a passenger capacity of 1,500 people. The intended name of the ship was supposed to be the Empress of Austria, but it was changed to the Empress of Ireland after a policy was made that all Canadian Pacific ships would be named after a part of the British Empire. Stretching for 570 feet, she was ready for service and launched on Jan. 26, 1906.
Following the sinking of the Titanic, the Empress had her lifesaving equipment updated. Originally equipped with wooden lifeboats, in 1912 these were changed to steel lifeboats, 16 in all, along with 26 wooden lifeboats. In all, these boats could take 1,686 people on them. By all accounts, most people considered it to be safer than the Titanic because of its updated lifesaving equipment. In fact, it was said there were so many lifeboats on the ship, that they were stacked on the deck.
By the time 1914 came along, it had transported 117,000 new immigrants to Canada, 80,000 of which settled in the Canadian West.
Let’s flash forward to 1914, on the ship’s 96th crossing of the ocean. It was on May 28 of that year, at 4:30 p.m. when the ship left Quebec City with 420 crew and 1,057 passengers. First Class only had 87 booked passengers, including Laurence Irving, son of Sir Henry Irving and Sir Henry Seton-Karr, a former member of the British House of Commons. Neither man would make it home to England.
In Second Class, there were 253 passengers, most of whom were with the Salvation Army for the Salvation Army Congress in London.
In Third Class there were 717 people, nearly filled to capacity.
The ship was captained by Henry George Kendall, who had just been promoted to Captain, and was making his first trip down the Saint Lawrence River in command of the ship.
On May 28, the ship left Quebec City, bound for Liverpool. According to legend, the ship’s cat, a yellow tabby, fled down the gangway just as the ship was leaving. A steward ran back to get the cat, and brought the cat back but the cat once again ran off the ship and was left behind.
In the very early hours of May 29, the ship was traveling near Rimouski when it caught sights of the Storstad, a Norwegian ship. On the Storstad, there was 10,000 tons of coal being transported. A lookout said there was a ship 13 kilometres up the river to starboard. Captain Kendall on the Empress ordered his crew to send their ship to the east. At this point, the fog started to roll in.
As soon as the fog rolled in, Kendall gave the order to go full astern to stop the ship.
He then had two long blasts of the whistle to inform the Storstad that the Empress was not moving. The Storstad responded with one long blast.
The crew of the Empress then looked for signs of the ship.
Suddenly, the Storstad came out of the fog 30 metres away and Kendall ordered the Empress to go full speed ahead to avoid the collision.
At 2 a.m., the Storstad crashed into the Empress at a 45 degree angle right at the centre of the ship.
While the Storstad remained afloat, the Empress was heavily damaged and a 350-foot square hole ripped through her side, although some sources say it is 175 feet.
Kendall ordered his crew not to reverse engines to keep the boat stable and the hole plugged in the ship. The Storstad captain ordered full ahead to keep the ship in the hole on the Empress but the current of the St. Lawrence was too strong and the ships began to separate.
The fog now began to clear and as the ships separated, water started to pour into the Empress at 60 gallons per second and the ship was fast sinking.
Kendall sent out a message, stating
“Empress of Ireland stopped by dense fog, struck amidship in vital spot by collier Storstad.”
The Marconi Station at Father Point kept in contact with the ship before it suddenly lost contact.
There was no time to shut the watertight doors and many of the passengers and crew in the lower decks drowned. The ship began to list to starboard to the point that within a few minutes, the boats on the port side could not be launched. When passengers tried to launch the boats, the boats would crash into the side of the ship and spill everyone into the water. Only five lifeboats on the starboard section were launched successfully.
Hundreds of sleeping passengers in second and third class were trapped with no hope of survival, while first class passengers were higher up in the boat and could get to the deck much quicker.
Ten minutes after the collision, the ship lurched over to its starboard side, allowing some people to get out portholes and decks onto the port side. For the next minute the ship was on its side but two minutes after that, the stern rose out of the water and the ship began to sink below the waves. Several hundred people were thrown into the extremely cold water and died as the cold overtook them.
The Storstad did what it could, lowering her own lifeboats and bringing survivors out of the water. The radio operator on shore quickly picked up the emergency signal of the Empress and broadcast it out to two other ships that arrived at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.
The huge loss of life was attributed to three main factors. The first was where the Storstad hit the Empress, the second was the failure to close the watertight doors and the longitudinal bulkheads that increased the list by inhibiting cross flooding. Another problem was the open port holes. Typically, port holes were closed as soon as a ship left port but they were left open this time for ventilation and the feeling that they were in the sheltered waters of the Saint Lawrence River. When the ship began to list to starboard, the open portholes increased the flooding of the ship.
In all, the ship sank in only 14 minutes. Only seven of the 40 lifeboats were launched.
Of the 420 crew, 172 died, or 28.4 per cent. Of the passengers, 840 died, including over 134 children.
Of the 310 women on board, only 41 lived, while 172 men out of 437 lived.
Third class was the hardest hit, with 584 lives lost of the 717 people who were in that class.
Second class lost 205 people out of 253. In second class, there were 170 members of the Salvation Army, of which only 40 survived.
In first class, 51 people died out of 87.
The first ship, other than the Storstad, on the scene was the CGS Eureka, followed by the Lady Evelyn.
A message came from one of the ships in the search area as morning broke, stating,
“No sign of Ireland. Lifeboats visible in the distance circling around the CGS Eureka. The government steamer Lady Evelyn is also on the scene now.”
One of the survivors was Captain Kendall, who had ordered lifeboats to be launched immediately. When the ship lurched over to its side, he was thrown into the water and had to swim to the surface where he clung to a wooden grate. As soon as he got into a small boat, he took command of it and ordered the crews to drop off the survivors and then find more survivors. He spent the next two hours searching the water for people.
Now, let’s look at a few of the people who were on that ship when the disaster happened.
The youngest survivor on the ship was Grace Hanagan, she was also the last survivor of the sinking when she passed away in 1995. She said that her parents, who were with the Salvation Army, were awoken 10 minutes before the ship went under the water and jumped over the side. While Grace was lifted into a lifeboat, her parents died. For years, she was scared to take a bath, having been one of only four children to survive the wreck.
“I remember holding onto a plank or some wood and there was a woman on it with me. We saw a lifeboat a little ways off and we called to the people in the boat.”
Another survivor, William Clarke, who worked as a stoker on the ship, said,
“No one had any time to wait on the Empress of Ireland. We knew what we had to do. No more, no less. The Empress sprawled like a pig in the mud. The Titanic simply sank like a fat baby going to sleep.”
Tragedy hit many families, including the Bartschie family out of Botha, Alberta. The brothers Chris and Ted were on their way to Switzerland when the ship sank. Both men were awakened by the crash and ran to the deck to put on life jackets. They said goodbye to each other and jumped overboard into the water. The ship sank and pulled both men down in the suction. Ted came to the surface and looked for his brother but did not see him. Sadly, Chris cut his hand on wire before the trip and was unable to hang onto anything in the water. He was lost at sea while Ted made it to a lifeboat and was one of the survivors.
William Clarke had survived the sinking of the Titanic two years earlier, where he served as a fireman on board the ship. He then sailed on the Empress, also as a fireman, and amazingly survived the sinking as well.
Thomas Corrigan was on the ship and he dived into the water to save a young man who was his neighbour from Liverpool.
Laurence Irving, a famous theatre actor in England, was on the ship when it went down. He and his wife Mabel had become separated on the ship and he knew she could not swim, although he had put a lifebelt around her waist. Even though he was safe, he jumped into the St. Lawrence to rescue her. Neither of their bodies were found.
Charlie Wilkes of Fairlight, Saskatchewan was on the ship as part of the Moose Jaw Salvation Army Band enroute to London when he went down with the ship.
The Nelson family of the Provost, Alberta area had made the decision to take a trip out to the old country in 1914. The family had arrived in 1907 and felt it was time for a visit. John Nelson and his wife , along with sons Eric and Siegfried, were on the ship when the disaster happened. The entire family would drown in the disaster.
A man identified as W. Davis of Montreal said he and his wife had been awakened by the collision and knew nothing of the accident until water began to rush into their stateroom. He helped his wife to the bow deck but the ship had listed by that point. They then crawled on their hands and knees up the sloping deck as the ship sank. His wife was then swept out of his grasp as the ship sank. They were both sucked under the water by the ship going beneath the waves but they emerged and grabbed onto a piece of wood and were rescued.
J.W. Longley, a rancher from B.C. simply sat on the deck rail as the ship went down. He held his breath and as he came back up, he grabbed the side of a lifeboat and was rescued.
William Measuers, a Salvation Army bandsman, crept along the rail of the promenade deck as the ship sank before he stepped into the water. He then swam to a life boat and was rescued.
A Mrs. Hollis, one of the 11 stewardess on the ship was the only one to survive. She said,
“I cannot swim, but I managed to keep afloat for a few moments until a fireman pulled me out of the water.”
Fergus Duncan, who was on the ship, gave a detailed account of what happened. He said,
“The impact did not seem serious to Captain Kendall, or the commander of the Storstad, but it was sufficient to leave quite a space between them. The Empress launched a boat to see what the damage was and almost at the same moment, the Empress listed to one side. Before there was any warning for the passengers to go on deck, the ship lurched again and went down.”
The ship’s doctor, James Grant, survived the sinking and tended to the injuries of the survivors wearing a pajama top and borrowed trousers. For the rest of his life, he never discussed his time on the ship.
Many who were not on the ship suffered tragedy as well, including William Clarke, who had bid his wife and young daughter a goodbye as they left to go to Liverpool. He said upon learning of their deaths,
“I would sooner have gone down on that boat with my wife and child than have heard this terrible news. For the last two weeks, my little daughter had a presentment that something would happen. On the way to the train she said to me. Oh daddy, I am afraid of that boat.”
Several days after the ship sank, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in Montreal and he was asked how he would solve the mystery of the sinking. He said he could offer no solution.
Prime Minister Robert Borden said of the disaster,
“In its awful suddenness and in the dreadful toll of human life taken the disaster is one which brings a shock as we, in this country, have never felt before.”
Captain Kendall was apparently beyond consoling, and was said to be laying in a hotel and had not uttered more than two words in the days after the disaster.
A few weeks after the disaster, Canadian Pacific hired a salvage company to dive down and blast a hole in the ship to get the mail from the first class area, along with money worth $2 million today.
A British court of inquiry blamed the captain of the Storstad, while an Norwegian inquiry blamed the captain of the Empress. Both captains said the other ship changed course and hit their ship.
The Canadian Parliament passed a bill to appoint a special board of inquiry, but the testimony of the witnesses and survivors was so confusing and contradictory that the board made its own estimate of the fact. Lord Mersey, who sat on the board, said,
“The stories are irreconcilable and we have to determine which is the more probably. The times, distances and bearings vary so very much, even in the evidence from witnesses from the same ship.”
Like the British court, the Canadian court too blamed the Storstad for colliding with the ship.
Despite the huge loss of life, the Empress was far less famous in the public mind than the Titanic. For decades, the Titanic was more written about and covered. Only the Salvation Army wrote anything about it, when Herbert Wood wrote Till We Meet Again in 1982. Three other books were written as well. Historians believe that the ship was overtaken in the public mind because of the outbreak of the First World War.
It was not until the movie Titanic was released in 1998 that people became more interested in the story of the Empress. It was in that year that the Quebec government finally declared the sunken liner to be a historic site to prevent looters and salvagers from stripping the ship.
The wreck site remained undisturbed until 1964 when it was found by a scuba diving team from Ottawa and Hull. They soon removed artifacts. In 1968, one of the 20-tonne propellers was removed. Then divers from the United States began to take artifacts from the wreck site, illegally back to the United States.
Today, the Empress sits 130 feet below the surface and is accessible to divers. One diver was able to reach the mailroom where he found a bundle of newspapers neatly tied with paper that was still readable and dated May 27, 1914.
In April 2012, 500 artifacts from the Empress of Ireland were acquired by the Museum of Civilization.
Information for this article comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Canada’s History, Wikipedia, Across Border and Valley, Botha, Liverpool Museums, Early Furrows, Irish Central, Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, National Post, Saskatoon Daily Star, Daily News Advertiser, Vancouver Province,