Fog rolled in across the St. Lawrence, unannounced, and quickly as it often does. On May 29th,1914, a few minutes before 2 in the morning, that fog would play a pivotal role in the collision of the luxury passenger ship, the Empress of Ireland, and a coal ship, the Storstad.
The Empress of Ireland had been docked in Quebec and had set sail for Liverpool, England, carrying on board 1477 souls. The Empress was 167 meters (550’) long, and 20 meters (65.5’) wide. It had 40 lifeboats, to accommodate 1686 people, much more than the necessary requirement. There were 24 life buoys with 2212 life jackets of which 150 were for children. They also had the Marconi wireless telegraph system and the most modern under-water iceberg detecting sonar. Despite all their security measures, it was no match for the thick fog and the collision course with the Storstad. Sailing a few hundred kilometers from Quebec, the Storstad carried 10,400 tons of coal, bound for the city of Montreal when it struck the Empress of Ireland.
Fourteen minutes after impact, the Empress disappeared underwater and 1012 lives perished including 134 of the 138 children on board. The sinking of the Empress of Ireland was named Canada’s Titanic, but its magnitude and significance to Canada’s history and maritime history was soon overlooked with the start of World War 1, 30 days later.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the largest maritime disaster in Canadian history, and much is being done to help rectified this forgotten tragedy. A commemorative website has been established to acknowledge the events and pay tribute to the lives lost. You can learn further about the tragic events of May 29th, 1914, read in great detail about the accident, the history of the ship and view the passenger list for that fateful evening. The website provides us a glimpse into the lives of some of the passengers on board. However, and even more importantly, the stories page, offers an opportunity for descendants of the passengers of the Empress of Ireland to share their stories about their ancestors and to connect with others.
In 1964, divers rediscovered the Empress and purged many of its artifacts from it's dark grave. Today, some of those artifacts have found their way to museums. The site is now protected from any further diving.
To mark this historic anniversary, starting today, a 3-day event is planned in St.Luce, a small village just offshore of the maritime disaster. A commemorative coin and stamp will also be unveiled today in honour of the event.
If you have an ancestor who was on the Empress of Ireland that fateful night, you definitely want to check out this website. If you are fascinated with Canadian history, maritime history or learning about the lives of those on board, I encourage you to visit the website, The Empress of Ireland 1914-2014.
If you plan a visit to the area, you can take an excursion out to the historic site where the Empress of Ireland rests and view images of the ship via underwater sonar.
You may also be interested in visiting Canada’s Titanic – The Empress of Ireland, an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. The exhibit runs from May 30th 2014 – April 2015 and commemorates the ship that brought thousands of immigrants to Canadian soil. You’ll experience the events of that historic night, see artifacts from the ship and absorb eyewitness accounts including the memoir of an eight-year-old girl who survived this life-changing night.
If you can't make it to the exhibit, you can purchase an online a copy of their souvenir book,
Canada's Titantic - The Empress of Ireland by John Willis, which can be purchased for $9.95 on the website for the Canadian Museum of History.
No longer must the tragedy of the Empress of Ireland be deemed forgotten, and rest assured the names of those lost in the waters of the mighty St. Lawrence on May 29th, 1914 have found their place in Canadian history.