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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 on Penny Sized history, 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. Of the 1,477 people on board, 1,012 would die.
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. She 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.
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.
In the very early hours of May 29, the ship was traveling near Rimouski when it caught sights of the Storstad, a Norwegian ship. Fog soon rolled in and both ships began using their fog whistles.
Suddenly, at 2 a.m., the Storstad crashed into the side of the Empress of Ireland’s starboard side. While the Storstad remained afloat, the Empress was heavily damaged and a large hole caused the lower decks to flood extremely quickly. 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.
Ten minutes after the collision, the ship lurched over to its starboard side, allowing 700 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.
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.
Of the 420 crew, 172 died, or 28.4 per cent. Of the passengers, 840 died, including over 134 children. Only four children survived in total. Of the 310 women on board, only 41 lived, while 172 men out of 437 lived.
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.
Let’s look at a few of the people who were on that ship when the disaster happened.
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.
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.
Information for this article comes from Canada’s History,Wikipedia, Across Border and Valley, Botha, Early Furrows