Forgotten Tragedy: Sinking of the Empress of Ireland

Empress of Ireland. Photo: Library & Archives of Canada, Public Domain

Empress of Ireland. Photo: Library & Archives of Canada, Public Domain

May 29, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Empress of Ireland in Canadian waters.

RMS Empress of Ireland was a Canadian Pacific Steamship liner plying a regular route between Liverpool, England and Quebec City, Quebec.

In the early hours of May 29, 1914 she was outbound from Quebec near Rimouski on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. The pilot had just disembarked and the ship resumed her journey to Liverpool. The lights of a steam ship had been sighted nearby. Both ships became hidden in a heavy fog bank. Fog whistles on both ships began blowing regularly. Suddenly the SS Storstad, a Norwegian steamer, crashed into the side of the Empress causing severe damage below the waterline.

At the time of the collision the Empress carried 1,477 passengers and crew. Most of the passengers were asleep at the time of the accident. Within 14 minutes the ship sank. Only 465 persons survived. The death toll was 1,012 (840 passengers and 172 crew). Tragically 134 of those who perished were children.

Removing bodies of children from rescue/recovery ship at Quebec. Photo: Library of Congress, Public Domain

Removing bodies of children from rescue/recovery ship at Quebec. Photo: Library of Congress, Public Domain

The wreck lies at the relatively shallow depth of 130 feet (40 metres) and is accessible to skilled divers. Over the years many artifacts have been salvaged. Shortly after the accident salvage crews recovered 318 bags of mail and 212 bars of silver.

In 1999 the Canadian government designated the wreck a National Historic Site and it is now protected from further salvage.

On May 29, 2014 Canada Post  issued stamps to commemorate the sinking and loss of life. Numerous memorial services are planned to remember those who died in the sinking.

The Empress played a significant part in Canadian history. It made 95 trans-Atlantic crossing and carried over 120,000 immigrants to Canada. Many of these people settled in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba and contributed to the development of the West.

The sinking is still considered the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history.

References for more information:

Maritime Museum of Quebec

Library & Archives of Canada

The Empress of Ireland (Facebook)

Merseyside Maritime Museum (Liverpool, UK)

 

 

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