A Tragic Voyage: 100 Years after the Sinking of the Empress of Ireland

On May 28, 1914, under the command of Captain Henry George Kendall, the Empress of Ireland set sail under clear skies from Québec City with 1,477 passengers and crew on board heading to Liverpool, England. The ship picked up mail at Rimouski and then continued on to the pilot station, Pointe-au-Père, where the pilot disembarked saying, “I don’t think you’ll run into much fog,” as he climbed down the rope ladder. What followed was a perfect storm of tragic events that resulted in the loss of 1,012 lives.

The R.M.S. Empress of Ireland ca. 1906.

The R.M.S. Empress of Ireland ca. 1906 Source

The Fog

Shortly after 1:30 a.m. on May 29, Captain Kendall saw an approaching vessel, the Norwegian coal freighter Storstad. Almost immediately afterwards, a thick fog rolled in and Kendall ordered a full stop to allow the other ship to pass safely. The two ships communicated their sailing intentions. As the Storstad entered the fog bank, her First Officer later testified, there did not seem to be any possibility of a collision.

Just before 2:00 a.m., the fully loaded coal freighter emerged from the fog bearing down on them quickly. Captain Kendall franticly attempted to alert the Storstad, but it was too late—the Empress was violently struck mid-ship. The damage sustained was irreparable, the engine rooms quickly flooded leaving the ship powerless and unable to close the watertight doors of her bulkhead. As water continued to overwhelm the Empress, she lurched violently and alarms were sounded for the sleeping passengers to abandon ship.

SOS

A few hundred people reached the deck, but only four lifeboats were safely dropped before the ship capsized. Passengers and crew were thrown into the icy waters, and within minutes the Empress disappeared, finding her final resting place at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River.

The majority of the lives lost that night had been far below deck in third class. Of the 1,477 passengers and crew that had boarded the Empress of Ireland, a mere 473 survived.

The Storstad, following the collision with the Empress of Ireland.

The Storstad, following the collision with the Empress of Ireland Source

Tragedy and Blame

Heartbreak and finger-pointing followed the tragedy. Both ships’ crew members insisted they were not to blame for the accident. Editorials at the time claimed that if you believed either captains, both ships were at a standstill and miles apart. In the end, the inquiry found the Captain of the Storstad responsible for the collision.

The wreck of the Empress of Ireland rests on the floor of the St. Lawrence, 11 kilometres off Pointe-au-Père, Quebec, in 40 metres of water marked by a surface buoy. One hundred years later, the Empress of Ireland remains the largest Canadian maritime accident that occurred during peacetime.

For further research:

Discover also:

Library and Archives Canada releases eleventh podcast episode, Underwater Canada: Investigating Shipwrecks

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is releasing its latest podcast episode, Underwater Canada: Investigating Shipwrecks.

In honour of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, Marc-André Bernier, Chief of Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service, joins us to discuss shipwrecks, their importance in Canadian history, and how LAC plays an important role in researching, discovering and investigating them.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS or iTunes, or just tune in at Podcast – Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

For more information, please contact us at podcasts@bac-lac.gc.ca.

Underwater Canada: A Researcher’s Brief Guide to Shipwrecks

Shipwrecks, both as historical events and artifacts, have sparked the imagination and an interest in the maritime heritage of Canada. The discovery of the War of 1812 wrecks Hamilton and Scourge, found in Lake Ontario in the 1970s, and the discovery of the Titanic in the 1980s, served to heighten public awareness of underwater archaeology and history.

Whether you are a wreck hunter on the trail of a lost vessel, or a new shipwreck enthusiast eager to explore images and documents that preserve the epic tales of Canadian waters, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has something for you.

Starting your research

First, gather as much information as possible about the shipwreck(s) you are researching. Specifically, you will ideally want to obtain the following information (in order of importance):

  • Name of Vessel
  • Location of accident
  • Date of accident
  • Ship’s port of registry
  • Ship’s official number
  • Year of vessel’s construction

The Ship Registration Index is a helpful resource. The database includes basic information about more than 78,000 ships registered in ports of Canada between 1787 and 1966.

Can’t locate all of the information listed? There’s no cause for concern! Not all of the information is necessary, but it is essential that you know the name of the vessel. All Government records relating to shipwrecks are organized according to the ship’s name.

What is Available?

Using Archives Search, you can locate the following types of material:

Photographs

Maps

  • In Archives Search, under “Type of material”, select “Maps and cartographic material” to narrow your results.
    Government Records

All records listed are found in the documents of the Marine Branch (Record Group 42) and/or Transport Canada (Record Group 24).
Official Wreck Registers, 1870‒1975

  • Wreck Reports, 1907‒1974
  • Register of Investigations into Wrecks, 1911‒1960
  • Marine Casualty Investigation Records, 1887‒1980

Important: Government records contain information about shipwrecks that occurred in Canadian waters, and include all accidents involving foreign vessels in Canadian waters.

Please note: this is not an exhaustive list of resources, but rather a compilation of some of the major sources of documentation available on shipwrecks held at LAC.

Helpful Hints

You can find a number of digitized photographs, maps and documents on the Shipwreck Investigations virtual exhibition. More specifically, check out the collection of digitized Official Wreck Registers in the Shipwreck Investigations Database. Simply check if the name of the vessel you are researching is listed.

Another excellent source of information on shipwrecks is local public libraries. There are many maritime histories and bibliographies that offer reference points to begin your shipwreck research.