Cruise History: More passenger lives were lost on the the 1914 sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland than the RMS Titanic. The story of the Canadian Pacific liner is not well known, since World War I broke out only a month later. Try asking someone, “Have you heard of the Empress of Ireland?” You will most likely hear, “No. Who is she?” It was more tragic than the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
The RMS Empress of Ireland is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating, beautiful, impressive and prestigious wrecks in the world.
Its size, good condition, remaining artifacts and history all add up to a great dive. Her structure remains almost intact despite more than 85 years of salt water and strong currents.
Stephen Pavey’s novel, Pursuit of Grace: Aboard the Empress of Ireland, was based on research in Salvation Army archives.
The largest group of passengers was a delegation from the Canadian Salvation Army, including a select Salvation Army Band.
These passengers, numbering nearly a hundred, were travelling to London for an International Conference.
You Tube Video of the disaster.
The liner RMS Empress of Ireland departed Quebec City for Liverpool at 16:30 local time on 28 May 1914 with 1,477 passengers and crew.
Henry George Kendall had just been promoted to captain of the Empress at the beginning of the month; and it was his first trip down the Saint Lawrence River in command of the vessel. Early the next morning on 29 May 1914, the ship was proceeding down the channel near Pointe-au-Père, Quebec (eastern district of the town of Rimouski) in heavy fog. At 02:00 local time, the Norwegian collier Storstad crashed into the side of the Empress of Ireland. The Storstad did not sink, but the Empress of Ireland, with severe damage to her starboard side, listed rapidly, taking on water sand very quickly in the early morning of 29 May 1914.
This accident claimed 1,012 lives, making it the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history. It was a tragedy almost equal to the Titanic’s.
The culprit was fog, but a fog peculiar to the St. Lawrence at this time of year, when the warm air of late spring encounters a river chilled by icy meltwater. The two main actors in the drama were the Canadian Pacific steamship Empress of Ireland, outbound from Quebec, and the Norwegian collier Storstad, steaming upriver and loaded to the waterline. Their stage was a stretch of water just east of Rimouski near the St. Lawrence’s south shore, where the river opens up and navigation becomes simple and safer. The Empress, having just dropped her pilot at Father Point, was still quite close to shore. The Storstad, about to pick up her pilot for the voyage up river to Montreal, was hugging the coastline.
The ships sighted each other near 2:00 a.m. on May 29, until then a calm, clear night. On the bridge of the Empress of Ireland, Captain Henry Kendall guessed that the approaching ship was roughly eight miles away, giving him ample time to cross her bow before he set his course for more open water. When he judged he was safely beyond the collier’s path, he did so. If he held his new course, the two ships should pass starboard side to starboard side, comfortably apart. Movements after he had executed this maneuver, a creeping bank of fog swallowed the Norwegian ship, then the Empress.
This picture shows a survivor of the Empress of Ireland shipwreck. It was on this day, May 29, in the year 1914 that the Empress of Ireland sank near Quebec. There were 1012 people killed in the accident, making it the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history.
Although nothing like the Titanic in terms of size and elegance, the Empress of Ireland was the class of the Liverpool-Quebec City run that linked Canadian Pacific’s steamships with its transcontinental railroad. Celebrities on board were few, notably the actor Laurence Irving, famous son of the legendary Henry, and his wife, the actress Mabel Hackney, returning from a successful Canadian tour. They and most of the other passengers, which included roughly 170 members of the Salvation Army heading to a big convention in London, were by this time of night sound asleep. So were most of the crew.
Worried by the fog and the proximity of the other ship, Captain Kendall gave three blasts on his whistle, indicating to the other ship that he was ordering his engines full astern. Soon the 14,191 ton liner had slowed to a crawl, but Kendall kept her bow pointing on the course he had chosen and waited for a clear sign that the other ship was safely past. The next thing he saw were two masthead lights materializing out of the murk to starboard and heading straight at him. The two ships were already too close to avoid a collision, but Kendall ordered a sharp turn to starboard in a vain attempt to swing his stern enough away from the approaching vessel that it would deliver a glancing blow. The impact when it came was deceptively gentle. The Storstad’s bow, however, “had gone between the liner’s steel ribs as smoothly as an assassin’s knife,” wrote James Croall in his account of the disaster. And the wound was fatal.
First Class Entrance Hall and Stairway.
Water poured into the starboard side of the ship so fast that most of the people sleeping in starboard cabins didn’t have a chance. There was no time for the prerogatives of class to be tested, beyond the simple reality that residents of the higher-up first-class cabins were more likely to have some chance of survival. As the Empress of Ireland listed sharply to starboard, water began rushing into portholes left open despite the rule requiring their closure once a voyage was under way. The list quickly became so extreme that only five or six boats could be successfully launched. After 10 minutes, the liner lurched and lay on her side with hundreds of passengers perched on her hull, a situation that momentarily seemed “like sitting on a beach watching the tide come in,” according to one survivor. A mere 14 minutes after the collision, she sank. And by the time the last nearly frozen survivor had been fished from the water, the death toll was staggering. Of the 1,477 on board, 1,012 lost their lives, including 840 passengers, eight more than had died when the Titanic sank.
What had happened? According to the first mate of the Storstad, who didn’t rouse his sleeping captain until after all the crucial decisions had been made, he and his colleagues on the bridge had distinctly seen the Empress of Ireland’s red navigational light just before the fog closed in. If that were true, that red light meant her portside was showing, which signaled that the big ship had turned to pass them to portside. And this is what the men on the Storstad’s bridge assumed. After a few minutes groping blindly forward, the Storstad’s mate grew nervous and ordered the collier to turn to starboard, away from what he now presumed to be the other ship’s course. In reality he was turning the Storstad into the Empress’s side.
Captain Kendall, who had been thrown off his bridge when the ship lurched onto its beam ends, swore to his dying day that he had altered course cleanly and maintained it faithfully as the fog closed in. He always blamed Norwegian negligence for the disaster. “You have sunk my ship!” were practically the first words he uttered when he was pulled on board the Storstad to encounter her skipper. But perhaps his helmsman had swung her too far before she settled in on her proper course. Perhaps, as one of his crew later testified, there was a problem with the steering that caused his ship to wobble unpredictably on her course. Or perhaps the many lights of the brightly lit passenger vessel confused those on board the Storstad. No one will ever know for sure. For certain, fog had once again proved to be a treacherous enemy. Yet had the two ships simply kept their courses and held their speeds, they would have passed each other without incident.
Coming as it did so soon after the sinking of the Titanic, the loss of the Empress of Ireland underlined the difficulty of building a ship that couldn’t sink, even of building a ship guaranteed to sink so slowly that rescue was inevitable.
True, the Storstad was the worst imaginable ship that could collide with the liner. Her longitudinal bracing, designed to break through ice, made her a lethal weapon; the fact that she was fully loaded meant she punctured the Empress well below the waterline. (She penetrated the liner to a depth of at least 25 feet and left a gaping a hole at least 14 feet wide.)
The Empress sank too fast for her safety features to be fully operational. She had enough lifeboats for all her passengers and crew but could not launch them in time. Many of her watertight doors, operated manually, could not be closed with the ship listing sharply and water rushing in.
But despite the scale of the tragedy, it never achieved anything like the Titanic’s fame or enduring fascination. The Empress of Ireland was not a particularly famous or fashionable ship, and she sank so soon before the outbreak of the war that attention soon shifted to graver matters.
The commission of inquiry, chaired by the same Lord Mersey who presided over the hearings into the sinking of both the Titanic and the Lusitania, was held in Quebec City, far from the international limelight. But the lessons from the Empress of Ireland’s demise would have to be relearned barely 40 years later during the sinking of the Andrea Doria, when once again fog proved more than a match for the latest in seagoing technology.