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The Empress of Ireland--A Forgotten Tragedy

Updated on March 31, 2015
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The sinking of the Empress of Ireland remains the largest peacetime sea disaster in the history of Canada. On May 28th, 1914, shortly before the outbreak of World War One, a Norwegian coal carrier named Storstad rammed the Canadian-Pacific passenger liner Empress of Ireland in thick fog on the Saint Lawrence River. The Empress sank in only fourteen minutes, taking 1,102 people with her. However, the wreck has not attained the same status attributed to such ships as the Titanic and the Lusitania, and has been mostly forgotten by history.

The Empress of Ireland in port.
The Empress of Ireland in port. | Source

The Ship

The Empress of Ireland was built in Glasgow, Scotland, for the Canadian-Pacific Steamship Company. Construction began in 1905, and she was launched the following year. She measured 570 feet long and weighed 14, 191 tons. She was powered by steam, with two funnels and two propellers. Her top speed was around 20 knots. The ship, along with her older sister, the Empress of Britain, quickly established a reputation for reliability, as well as providing some of the fastest service back and forth between England and Canada.

While the ship was not as well known or as well loved as the ships of the Cunard and White Star Lines (Lusitania, Mauritania, Olympic, Titanic, etc.) she was considered a fine liner in her own right. First class men could make use of her elegant smoking lounge, while first class women enjoyed her music room. At dinner, a five-piece orchestra played for them as they ate. The ship also included a library and a cafe.

She could carry 1,580 passengers: 310 in First Class, 470 in Second Class, and 758 in Steerage.

A view of the Empress of Ireland's First Class Dining Room.
A view of the Empress of Ireland's First Class Dining Room. | Source

The Final Crossing

The Empress set sail for the last time from Quebec City on what was supposed to be a routine 6-day crossing to Liverpool. She carried 1,057 passengers and 420 crew members. Among them were famous actors Laurence Irving and his wife Mabel Hackney. Many members of the Salvation Army—including a 39-piece band—were travelling in Second Class to a convention in London. Third, or “Steerage” class, was mostly made up of former immigrants returning home, many of them recently laid off from the Detroit auto factories.

Her captain was Henry Kendall, a man who had begun his long career at sea at the age of 14. This was his first Atlantic crossing as master of the Empress of Ireland.

An ill omen preceded the voyage as well. The Empress had a ship's cat among her crew--an orange tabby named Emmy who had never once missed a voyage. But on the afternoon of the 28th, Emmy refused to get on board. All attempts to persuade her failed, and the ship departed without her. This was regarded amongst the sailors as bad luck, but they could not have foreseen what would happen just a few hours later.

The last known photograph of the Empress. Note the date at the bottom.
The last known photograph of the Empress. Note the date at the bottom. | Source

Collision in the Fog

The early morning of the 29th began clear and calm, but around 2:00 in the morning a heavy fog rolled in. The Empress was near Port-au-Pere, Quebec when Captain Kendall spotted the lights of another ship in the distance. This was--unknown to him--the Storstad, headed upriver to Montreal with a load of coal.

Kendall guessed that the other ship was about eight miles away, off the Empress of Ireland's starboard bow. He intended to pass starboard-to-starboard, blowing his whistle three times and slowing the engines, so that there could be--in his mind--no possible chance of collision. Before the fog obscured the Storstad completely, officers on the bridge of the Empress claimed to see the other ship's starboard lights, indicating that they were on the right course.

The Storstad's captain had retired for the night, leaving his Chief Officer in charge. His account of the collision was the exact opposite of Kendall's. He had glimpsed the Empress off his port bow, and before the fog hid the other ship from his sight, he claimed that both its port and starboard running lights were visible. He believed that the Empress was trying to pass him port-to-port instead of starboard-to-starboard, and altered his course accordingly. In reality, Storstad turned directly into the Empress of Ireland.

Kendall saw the collision coming at the last moment, when the Storstad burst out of the fog. He ordered full steam ahead, so that the Empress might clear the other ship's path, but it was too late. Storstad struck the Empress broadside, tearing a large hole in her hull below the waterline. Storstad would survive the damage to her bow, but the Empress was doomed from the moment the collision occurred.

The Storstad strikes the Empress of Ireland
The Storstad strikes the Empress of Ireland | Source

The Last Minutes

Perhaps the most horrific thing about the Empress of Ireland tragedy was how short a time it took--only fourteen minutes. Many of the passengers, sound asleep in their births, never knew what had hit them. Those few who managed to make their way to the boat deck quickly found that their situation was not much better than down below. The Empress carried enough lifeboats for every passenger (as per regulations put in place after the Titanic went down) but the severe list to the starboard side following the collision meant that only three lifeboats were launched. Roughly ten minutes after the collision, the liner rolled onto her side, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded on the port side of her hull. There was a brief moment of pause, where it seemed that the ship had run aground. Then the ship's stern rose briefly into the air and the hull sank beneath the waves. Hundreds of people were thrown into the freezing waters of the Saint Lawrence.

Captain Kendall, who had been standing on the bridge when the Empress flipped over, was rescued by one of the lifeboats, and immediately took command of the rescue operations. After several hours, long after hypothermia would have killed anyone still in the water, he ordered his boat to row toward the lights of the Storstad, which was drifting some distance away. "You have sunk my ship!" he told the Storstad's captain, and he would spend the rest of his life insisting that the accident was not his fault.

An artist's depiction of the Empress of Ireland's final moments.
An artist's depiction of the Empress of Ireland's final moments. | Source
Passenger's struggle on the side of the hull as the Empress sinks.
Passenger's struggle on the side of the hull as the Empress sinks. | Source

The Aftermath

An inquiry was conducted into the cause of the sinking, presided over by Lord John Bigham, 1st Viscount Mersey, who had also conducted the Titanic hearings (and would later do the same for the Lusitania). Primary blame was given to the Storstad, as its crew had not roused the captain when they entered the fog, and it was believed that they had altered their course "negligently." However, it was discovered that many portholes aboard the Empress of Ireland had been left open by passengers and crew during the night, which allowed the river to enter the ship quickly when she began to list onto her side. This was against safety regulations, and was determined to have played a part in the severity of the disaster.

The Empress of Ireland is considerably more obscure when compared to other shipwrecks of the time. She was not as large or glamorous as the Titanic, and no one had ever claimed she was unsinkable. Nor was she a casualty of war, as the Lusitania was the following year. While stories of the disaster initially made headlines across the world, the story was soon dropped in favor of the outbreak of the First World War, which happened just a few months later. As the middle in a trio of three infamous ocean liner disasters, and as the ship with the smallest claim to fame, the Empress of Ireland quickly vanished into history.

Diving the Wreck

The Empress of Ireland lies beneath 130 feet of water, well within range of modern scuba equipment. The first dives to the wreck were made a few weeks after the disaster, to retrieve mail, gold bullion, and human remains from the sunken ship. It remains a popular spot for divers, but not one to be taken lightly. The currents of the Saint Lawrence are treacherous, and the swirling clouds of silt in the river can severely hamper visibility. There is also the risk of decompression sickness, also known as "the bends," which is caused by dissolving gasses in the bloodstream. To date, at least six people have died while exploring the Empress.

In 2009, the wreck was declared a protected historical site by the Canadian government.

A Survivor's Words

Grace Hanagan, eight years old at the time, was one of only four children to survive the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. She was the ship's youngest survivor, and also it's last. She died on May 15th, 1995, at the age of 87. Below is an excerpt from an interview conducted before her death, where she recounts details of the sinking.

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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Very detailed piece. Learned a lot. Voted up and shared.

    • Michael Ainaire profile image
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      Michael Ainaire 2 years ago from New England

      Thank you for reading! I'm glad you liked it.

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