Last updated: December 13, 2019 at 16:08 pm
After more than a century beneath the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Empress of Ireland was recently commemorated as Canada’s worst maritime disaster, which resulted in the deaths of 1,012 people when the transatlantic liner capsized and sank in less than 15 minutes after a collision off Sainte-Luce, Québec.
Text by Jeffrey Gallant with photos by the Canadian Museum of History, Rudi Asseer, Philippe Beaudry, Jean-Louis Courteau, Jeffrey Gallant, Nicole Théorêt, and the Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père. Originally published in DIVER Magazine in 2014 (Volume 39 | Number 7). Updated for the Diving Almanac in May 2018.
It wasn’t her maiden voyage nor did her heart-rending loss turn the Empress of Ireland into a household name, or even inspire a Hollywood blockbuster. Yet no shipwreck is likened so often to the iconic and overshadowing Titanic… and that confounds me since comparisons are hardly necessary. Her sinking was tragic and singular. Though she was smaller and her passengers weren’t members of the high society traveling aboard the legendary Ship of Dreams, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland is one of the most riveting human dramas in the annals of seagoing commerce.
ABOVE: Framed black and white poster commemorating the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, May 29, 1914. The poster was sold by Tichnor Brothers, a Boston-based publishing house that specialized in the marketing of postcards and posters. Tichnor also put out a Titanic commemorative poster. Photo © Canadian Museum of History.
To this day, the much traveled St. Lawrence remains a treacherous and unforgiving seaway. The hundreds of ships she’s claimed from Quebec City to Anticosti Island are cautionary reminders to all those who ply her waters. The Empress of Ireland was no exception. In the early years of the twentieth century, long before the advent of radar and GPS navigation, fog was the insidious cloak of death that sealed the fate of countless ships and sailors, including HMS Raleigh in 1922. Ultimately, it was fog that turned an otherwise banal pilot transfer into a living hell for the Empress passengers who died, for many who survived, and for the hundreds whose lives were irrevocably altered by the loss of family and friends off Sainte-Luce in the early hours of May 29, 1914.
In the early years of the twentieth century, fog was the insidious cloak of death that sealed the fate of countless ships and sailors, including HMS Raleigh in 1922.
ABOVE: Passengers posing for a group photo aboard the Empress of Ireland. Photo courtesy Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père.
By this time in history, hundreds of thousands of immigrants had traveled up the St. Lawrence, and many more were still to make an ocean crossing to the New World, including my Scottish grandfather and great-grandmother who passed within sight of the Empress of Ireland’s warning buoy aboard another Canadian Pacific Line steamship, the RMS Melita, in 1929. Unlike today’s worldly travelers and cruise ship vacationers, these were simple folk who’d left everything behind to start a new life in a far-off land. Ships like the Empress of Ireland were in the business of shuttling these émigrés to Canada and she brought 100,000 of them over the years. Sadly, the story of these newcomers to North America and of the many ships that brought them to these shores receives scant mention in today’s classrooms. Today, the Empress of Ireland remains while her contemporaries are gone: lost at sea, in war, or unceremoniously broken up for scrap as commercial air travel rendered them obsolete.
ABOVE: CPR poster courtesy Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père.
Gone in a heartbeat
The sinking of the Empress of Ireland made headlines around the world but they were short-lived coming just two months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, an event that sparked the beginning of ‘The Great War’, which dominated the news for years to come. By the end of this first ‘world war’, the still recent drama of the Empress paled in comparison to the carnage of the European killing fields and so she was forgotten. Since then the Empress has made occasional headlines, mostly on anniversary dates, or in the context of a diver fatality or a salvage initiative. Little wonder that few Canadians, much less others, have heard of this maritime disaster, the country’s worst. Even famed American oceanographer Robert Ballard, commonly associated with the Titanic, later admitted that he’d never heard of the Empress of Ireland, nor did he know that more passengers died on the Empress than on Titanic. Out of 1,514 fatalities from the Titanic sinking, 818 were passengers (68.1% of passengers and crew were lost), while 840 Empress passengers died (68.5% of passengers and crew were lost).
Memorials were erected in Rimouski, Quebec City and Toronto, to serve as reminders of the tragic event, and today hundreds of artefacts recovered from the wreckage are exhibited in the Empress of Ireland Pavilion at the Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père in Rimouski, just a few kilometres from the wreck site.
In the course of time the Government of Quebec made it illegal to collect items or to disturb the wreck by declaring the Empress of Ireland a site of historical and archaeological importance under the Cultural Property Act in 1999. The Empress is listed in the register of Historic Sites of Canada as the country’s most structurally complete example of an early 20th-century ocean liner. It is also the only remaining ocean liner of the Canadian Pacific Railway from before the First World War, when the CPR operated the largest transportation and communication network in the world.
ABOVE: Commemorative poster of the Empress of Ireland departing Quebec City. Photo courtesy Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père.
Much was done to commemorate the Empress of Ireland over the course of the centennial year, especially in the province of Quebec where the tragedy still resonates in the city of Rimouski, which became the centre of rescue and recovery operations in the immediate aftermath of the sinking. In May 2014, a series of activities and ceremonies were held in Pointe-au-Père and a new exhibition opened at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau that ran til April 6, 2015. The underwater archaeological team of Parks Canada carried out new survey mission. Canada Post issued two stamps and the Royal Canadian Mint issued two coins to mark the disaster. The Salvation Army gathered at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto where they held a memorial for the 133 Salvationists who died on that fateful day. The Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père welcomed a record 60,000 visitors over the summer, the majority from out of town. Most symbolic was the ringing of church bells throughout the Rimouski area exactly 100 years after disaster struck, at 1:55 a.m. on May 29, 1914.
ABOVE: The Empress of Ireland departing for Liverpool on May 28, 1914. Less than nine hours later, she lay on the bottom of the St. Lawrence after colliding with the Norwegian collier Storstad. The note written in French means “Racing to death.”
The Empress of Ireland departed Quebec City for Liverpool on the afternoon on May 28 with a complement of 1,057 passengers and 420 crew. Less than nine hours into her 96th trans-Atlantic crossing, she lay on her starboard side at a depth of 150 feet (45 m) after colliding with the Norwegian collier Storstad. Just minutes after the Empress had disembarked her Canadian pilot off Pointe-au-Père, the crow’s nest lookout first sighted the Storstad some six miles (10 km) distant. That night the cargo vessel was fully laden with 10,000 tons of Cape Breton coal. At just under four miles (6 km), the vessels lost sight of each other in fog.
ABOVE: Captain Henry George Kendall. Photo courtesy Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père.
Empress Captain, Henry Kendall, would later state that he reversed engines and brought his ship to a complete stop and signalled his action with two long blasts of the ship’s whistle. He believed the Storstad would pass him on the inside or south of the channel while the Empress remained on the outside to the north. In this maneuver the ships would pass starboard to starboard. Storstad Officer-in-Charge, Alfred Toftenes, anticipating exactly the opposite, a port-to-port pass, steered his ship to the right.
ABOVE: Timeline to disaster: The Empress of Ireland meets her end (Public Domain).
When Captain Kendall saw Storstad’s navigation lights, he attempted to reduce the angle of impact, but it was too late. The coal-laden collier rammed the Empress amidships on her starboard side. Storstad’s ice-reinforced bow ripped her open below the waterline tearing a gaping hole that caused catastrophic flooding in the engine rooms and lower decks. The fatal torrent quickly caused the ship to list sharply on its starboard side. Electrical power was soon lost, casting the entire ship in darkness.
“Titanic sank like a sleeping baby. The Empress of Ireland rolled around like a pig in mud.” — William Clark, stoker who survived both the Titanic and Empress sinkings.
Most passengers sleeping in starboard cabins were unable to escape. Survivors would be those on upper decks or on-duty crewmembers. After just 10 minutes, the Empress lay on her side with hundreds of passengers and crew scrambling to reach the upper portion of the sinking hull. The Empress had lifeboats for all onboard but she listed so rapidly that fewer than half were successfully launched; one that did make it was later crushed with all occupants by falling debris. William Clark, who worked as a stoker and who had also survived the sinking of Titanic just two years before, later contrasted them saying, “Titanic sank like a sleeping baby. The Empress of Ireland rolled around like a pig in mud.”
ABOVE: The Storstad and her damaged bow after the collision. Photo courtesy Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père.
Death came swiftly
Most of those who were thrown overboard or who jumped to avoid going down with the ship died quickly in the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence. In just 14 minutes, the Empress sank taking with her hundreds of passengers entombed in their cabins. Despite frantic rescue attempts by the crew of Storstad, the death toll was staggering. Of the 1,477 on board, 1,012 perished, including 840 passengers, eight more than were lost when Titanic sank on her maiden voyage. An SOS was sent by the Marconi (telegraph) officer but when the pilot boat Eureka and the mail ship Lady Evelyn arrived from Rimouski, only the dead remained to be pulled from the glacial water. Just four of 138 children lived through the ordeal, including Grace Hanagan who was the youngest and the last Empress survivor to die, at age 87 in 1995.
ABOVE: Passengers cling to the overturned hull of the Empress of Ireland after the collision with the Storstad. Many would die along with the hundreds trapped inside the ship.
Captain Kendall remained aboard the Empress to oversee evacuation but was thrown from the bridge into the water where a lifeboat rescued him. He watched helplessly as hundreds of passengers were swamped from their precarious perch on the hull as it slipped away beneath them. A vortex caused by the ship’s descent and violent crash on the shallow seafloor sucked many under. Those who were lifted back to the surface by their lifejackets desperately clung to floating debris; some were picked up by lifeboats, the less fortunate died from drowning or hypothermia. Staff Captain McAmmond recalled the deadly chill of the water. “It was terribly cold… some of the people we assisted were so numbed that it was only with the greatest difficulty we succeeded in saving them.”
Families were destroyed and left destitute. Bloodlines ended.
Effect of the disaster was far reaching. Families were destroyed and left destitute. Bloodlines ended. After the dead were buried, a Commission of Inquiry was convened to determine cause of the tragedy. The two ships’ captains, Henry Kendall and Thomas Andersen, furiously accused each other and although the Commission would eventually find fault with them both, Captain Kendall was absolved and most of the blame was to rest on the shoulders of Captain Andersen and his Chief Officer, Alfred Toftenes. Less than three years later and in a curious twist of fate, the Storstad also lay at the bottom of the sea off the southern coast of… Ireland, torpedoed by the German submarine SM U-62 during the First Battle of the Atlantic.
First salvage dives
A grisly salvage operation began within the month. Hardhat divers found the wreck angled at approximately 60 degrees, her masts and smoke stacks occasionally visible from surface vessels. The divers recovered bodies, 300 bags of mail, 212 silver ingots and the ship’s safe, which they accessed by blasting a large hole into her port flank. A three-knot current, near freezing water temperatures, and little or no visibility tested the divers, but dealing with the death all around was worse. Bodies would appear before them, often horribly disfigured from weeks underwater. One diver died when he slipped off the hull and plummeted to the sea floor, cutting off his air supply. Diving operations ceased by the end of September. The start of World War I in late July had already sealed the ship’s fate as resources were redirected to support troops going overseas. The Empress of Ireland, grave to so many lost souls, was effectively abandoned and would remain undisturbed for decades, protected by distance from shore and the impenetrable barrier of the cold, turbulent and murky flow of the St. Lawrence.
ABOVE: Hardhat divers during salvage operations in 1914. Photo courtesy Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père.
The invention of the Aqua-Lung and the advent of sport diving would bring back to life long lost shipwrecks the world over, including the Empress of Ireland. ‘Finders, keepers’ was the rule of the day and dawn of a new Eldorado led by intrepid adventurers and entrepreneurs. These underwater treasure hunters became a much-admired new breed of risk taker pleased to regale backyard audiences with their tales of daring, and displays of salvaged booty as proof of their deep-sea adventures.
As the most accessible of the lost great liners, the Empress of Ireland was impossible to resist. A group of divers from Quebec rediscovered the dormant Empress in 1964, half a century after her sinking. At first, the recovered souvenirs were small, including a brass bell. Two years later, one of the ship’s massive propellers was removed with great effort, and some dynamite. Since the CPR had by then renounced all rights to the wreck, the race to strip her went into high gear. Empress Fever would afflict treasure hunters across North America for the next three decades.
ABOVE: Sport divers rediscovered the Empress of Ireland in 1964. Photo courtesy Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père.
Philippe Beaudry is by far the most famous of all Empress divers. He made the first of his more than 600 dives on the Empress in 1970 and in the ensuing 25 years proceeded to amass a collection of Empress artefacts and collectibles second to none. Beaudry hosted Équipe Cousteau when the famous French ‘plongeur’ and his team explored and filmed the Empress during production of the 1982 National Film Board documentary St. Lawrence: Stairway to the Sea. In one wreck scene filmed in the captain’s quarters, Beaudry locates a straight razor and the missing glass window of the captain’s clock, which he’d previously recovered. In another, Beaudry and Cousteau diver Bernard Delemotte emerge from the water and climb aboard the anchored Calypso where they are greeted by Ronald Fergusson, the wireless operator who issued the distress signal from the fast-sinking Empress. Beaudry was also acquainted with Grace Hanagan, a child survivor who was orphaned by the tragedy. Beaudry became a serious student of the Empress and her story, traveling to England to meet with relatives of some of the survivors in his research quest.
ABOVE: St. Lawrence: Stairway to the Sea (1982) by the National Film Board of Canada. Go to 00:11:15 for the segment on Équipe Cousteau and Philippe Beaudry diving the Empress of Ireland while aboard the Calypso.
When Beaudry first began to recover objects from the Empress, there was no debate on the pros and cons of treasure hunting, at least not in Quebec. By 1990, just about every diver exploring the wreck returned with a souvenir, including the group of divers on my first Empress sortie in 1994. I was the exception. At the time there was still no consensus on wreck preservation in Canada, and the Empress, which was a prime example of what unrestricted collecting could do to a wreck, was the subject of many heated discussions. Even on my first dive nearly 25 years ago, there were no portholes or prize collectibles to be seen unless you were willing to increase both your bottom time and risk factor by penetrating areas of the wreck that remained unexplored at that time. Robert Ballard would later write in his book Lost Liners (1997), “Sadly, some divers have taken the bones of the more than 1,000 people who died when the Empress of Ireland went down.”
“Sadly, some divers have taken the bones of the more than 1,000 people who died when the Empress of Ireland went down.” — Dr. Robert Ballard