Saturday, 21 July 2018

The Story: The End of the Empress of Ireland

The Empress of Ireland

 In the early years of the 20th century travel by sea was a lot faster and safer than it had been in the past. But maritime disasters still happened. The stories of the loss of the Titanic in 1912 and the infamous sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 still remain in public memory. But there was another ship whose loss is relatively unknown. That ship was the Empress of Ireland. I found out its story when researching my grandfather's 1911 immigration to Canada.

Grandad immigrated in March so he first touched land in Canada in St. John, New Brunswick. The preferred route was available later in the season when ice left the St Lawrence River so that immigrants could be dropped off in Montreal or Quebec City. The safety of the river route, with only four days on the Atlantic, was one of the selling points of making the crossing to Canada as the routes to US ports spend longer on the open sea. But navigating the St Lawrence had its own dangers. 

The St Lawrence had just opened to shipping on May 28, 1914 when the Empress of Ireland left Quebec. The ship had made its way down river during the day as the passengers explored their new quarters. In the hours past midnight, the navigation of the ship was back in the hands of its crew after the river pilot was let off at Pointe-au-Pere.

Navigation could be tricky, especially in the dark. In the days before radar, ships showed lights of different colours on port and starboard to indicate their direction to other vessels in the vicinity.  At that time of year, the water was cold and fog often formed above it. The crews could stray to close to land or other shipping.

The crews of the Empress and the Storsdad saw each other approaching and took note of the lights that were showing but as they came closer fog obscured them from each other. One of the ships, it is not known which, turned and the heavily reinforced bow of the Storsdad pierced the side of the Empress. If the ships had remained stuck together things might have turned out differently but they became separated and the Empress started to sink.

The Empress listed to one side so only some of the lifeboats could be launched. Watertight doors to seal off the ship off into compartments wouldn't move. People had been asleep, were disoriented and many didn't have time to get to the upper decks. The Empress rolled over and sank in fourteen minutes. Many people were still on board and went down with the ship. Others died in the frigid waters which had surrounded the vessel. There were over 1000 dead from among the passengers and crew. 


Croall, James. Fourteen Minutes: The last voyage of the Empress of Ireland. Michael Joseph Limited, London, 1978.

McMurray, Kevin F. Dark Descent: Diving and the Deadly Allure of the Empress of Ireland. International Marine/McGraw-Hill Companies, New York, 2004.

Zeni, David. Forgotten Empress: The Empress of Ireland Story. Goose Lane Editions. Fredericton, New Brunswick, 1998.


Postcard – Empress of Ireland - by Unknown - Sj√∂historiska museet, Public Domain, 

Newspaper headline - by Unknown - Bartlett, Robert A. (1916) Last Voyage of the Karluk : Flagship of Vilhjalmar Stefansson's Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-16, Boston, MA: Small, Maynard and Company, Public Domain,