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The Sinking of RMS Empress of Ireland

For the week of Monday May 26, 2014

On May 29, 1914, Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) Empress of Ireland sank in the Gulf of St. Lawrence taking more than a thousand passengers and crew members down with it. Around 1:55 a.m., it was en route from Québec to Liverpool; 14 minutes later, all that remained were some lucky survivors and the dense fog that had precipitated its demise.

RMS Empress of Ireland was one of a series of Empress ships known for their safety, comfort, and speed.
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-116389
RMS Empress of Ireland was built by Scotland’s Fairfield Shipbuilding Company for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Measuring 173.7 metres (570 feet) and weighing 14,191 gross tons, it first reached Canada in 1906.

Though the ship was designed to stay afloat in the event of disaster, it was overwhelmed by the amount of water that poured in after its collision with the Norwegian SS Storstad. This smaller ship pierced the starboard (right) side of the Empress. Without time to close the watertight doors, the crew could not prevent the ship from sinking. The Empress’ Captain Kendall attempted to beach the damaged vessel, but ran out of steam because both engine rooms flooded.

Map showing collision course. The Empress (left) changed directions several times, as did the Storstad (right). However, the biggest factor was the fog bank (centre) that obscured sightlines.
© Royal Alberta Museum, Alberta Culture

Storstad’s Captain Anderson was asleep at the time of the accident, but had ordered his Chief Officer Toftenes to wake him if the fog became too thick. According to the official inquiry held in Canada, Toftenes had changed Storstad’s course abruptly, resulting in the collision. However, Norway’s subsequent investigation found the Empress’ captain at fault.

After Empress was hit, some of the sleeping passengers arose and prepared to board lifeboats. Few of them were seen again. But there was no shortage of heroics that night either. Eight-year-old Florence Barbour was rescued by Robert W. Crellin when he swam to safety with the girl on his back. Some passengers gave up their lifebelts to save others.

Approximately 465 people survived the tragedy and 1,012 died. Many of the recovered bodies were buried near Métis-sur-Mer, Quebec, where a monument stands to their memory.

Sonar image taken by Parks Canada and the Canadian Hydrographic Service, 2013.
© Parks Canada / 2013
In 2013, Parks Canada and the Canadian Hydrographic Service conducted a joint remote-sensing survey of the wreck site using side-scan sonar and multi-beam echosounder technologies. Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service is planning further investigation of the site this summer, as the agency commemorates the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.

The wreck of the RMS Empress of Ireland is a National Historic Site. For more on maritime history and archaeology, please consult In Pursuit of the Erebus and Terror: An Arctic Mystery, and The Elizabeth and Mary: A Shipwreck. Click here and here to learn more about Parks Canada’s underwater archaeology projects.

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