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An Excerpt from Disaster Canada
by Janet Looker

The Sinking of the Empress of Ireland
Friday, May 29, 1914

It seems to me that the resentful sea gods never do sleep, and as long as men will travel on the water, the sea gods will take their toll.

--Joseph Conrad commenting on the tragedy of the Empress of Ireland

The sea gods took their toll, with profound cruelty, on the beautiful ocean liner the Empress of Ireland and left her where she lies today; 170 feet deep in the frigid swells of the throat of the St. Lawrence seaway. She is filled with sediment, gnawed by rust, and shrouded by web-like filaments of old fishing nets. Bubbles no longer burst their stale contents onto the water's surface, nor are the currents stained, as they once were, by seeping contents of things foreign to the sea. The ship has been claimed, has relented to a new mistress. Yet, entombed within the decaying mass, remain the skeletons of love and honour, the echoes of prayers, and the shadowy remnants of more than a thousand once promising human lives.

They boarded on the afternoon of May 28, 1914, amidst the chaos of last minute preparations. For the previous week, while standing in the Quebec Harbour, Canadian Pacific's Empress of Ireland had been packed with 1100 tons of cargo, huge quantities of produce, and 7000 pounds of fresh meat, including 1200 prepared chickens. 2600 tons of coal had been handed one bucket at a time into the boiler room. Baggage had been loaded, piece by piece, and a cargo of 212 silver bars, from Nipissing Mine in Ontario, had been safely secured in the shipís treasury.

Now it was time for the passengers. They were escorted aboard and shown to their quarters. Among them was a large contingent, 167, from the Salvation Army. Thrilled to be attending the third Salvation Army Congress in London, their excitement was infectious. Their voyage had begun with a well attended march down Yonge Street in Toronto to Union Station, where boisterous crowds waved them off, and the Salvationists gathered now on the Empressís decks wearing new red tunics and Mountie-style Stetson hats. The staff band pulled instruments from baggage and started to play 'O, Canada' and 'Auld Lang Syne'. A throng of hundreds gathered on the quay, waving Union Jacks and shouting good-byes as the lines were released. Then, as the ship cast off at 4:30pm, the cheering and flag waving crescendoed. The band was playing 'God Be With You Till We Meet Again'.

The Empress of Ireland's final destination was Liverpool, England, but before being tossed by the unpredictable Atlantic Ocean, she had a night's journey through the calm waters of the St. Lawrence. And the night was benevolent; cool but calm, with a clear, starlit sky. Since her maiden voyage eight years before, the stately liner had gathered about her a reputation of stability and comfort. True, the Titanic had gone down just two years before, on a similar crossing, but the lessons had been learnt and passengers were assured that the Empress was more than adequately equipped with lifeboats and a trained crew.

Laurence Irving Actor Laurence Irving
-Lynx Images Collection
The passengers took the first night to explore the ship. Dashing English actor, Laurence Irving with his wife and stage partner, Mabel Hackney, dined in the first class dining room. They chose a private alcove of Spanish mahogany, beneath sculptured moldings and stained glass portholes. Somewhere closer to the five piece orchestra, and exchanging small talk, sat robust big game hunter and explorer, Sir Henry Seton-Karr, with the Sherbrooke socialite Mrs. Ethel Paton, her superfluous diamonds basking in the brilliant electric lights. Sir Henry had just done a spot of climbing in British Columbia, while Mrs. Paton was on route to visit her journalist brothers.

After dinner, the ship's doctor, young James Grant, a fresh graduate of McGill University, followed the strains of the orchestra up through the cafe. The first class library - muted tiffany lamps and Ambonia-paneled walls - was empty, so he gravitated instead towards the company of the first class smoking room. While the men savoured cigars, or nightcaps in the bar, the first class ladies could be found languishing in the music room on the Upper Promenade Deck, grouped around the Steinway piano, or nestled into rose taffeta sofas near the fireplace.

The Reading Room The Reading Room
-Lynx Images Collection
The second class areas were inundated with Salvationists. Their Canadian commander, Commissioner David Rees, with his wife and three children was with them, as were many of the highest ranking Salvationists in Canada. Some of them, enjoying the new moon on the Lower Promenade Deck, started an impromptu sing-a-long, complete with four part harmony, lifting their voices to heaven with soul-stirring hymns.

The third class was filled to overflowing with working class families of diverse backgrounds. It was a fusion of languages, cultures sharing cabins, some returning oversees forever, others using precious savings for a special trip. Most of the children aboard were on these lower decks.

Captain Kendall Captain Henry Kendall
-Lynx Images Collection

On the bridge stood Captain Henry Kendall. All was in order in his floating palace as it cut through the night. He anticipated a happy and entertaining journey. Kendall, at thirty-nine, was a seaman of wide experience and fascinating anecdotes. He had once been instrumental in the capture of famous British murderer Dr. Hawley Crippen. Four years previously, when Dr. Crippen, fresh from dismembering his wife, boarded a transatlantic vessel under Kendall's command, the captain had seen through a weak disguise and alerted, by wireless, Scotland Yard in London. He slowed his own ship's progress so that, on reaching Point-au-Pere in the St. Lawrence, an English detective was waiting, handcuffs at the ready. It was one of the first dramatic illustrations of the power of the Marconi wireless set. Crippen, enraged by Kendall's detection, spat a threat at him as he was hauled off to Point-au-Pere: "You will suffer for this treachery, sir."

And now, once again, Point-au-Pere was disappearing into the distance. The Empressís river pilot had just disembarked and the ship settled at a steady, seaward, eighteen knots. A couple of banks of fog drifted over the boat during the evening. Sporadic fog banks were a common hazard on this waterway, as were patches of shallow water, tidal currents and heavy traffic, but when a particularly dense fog enveloped the ship, blotting out another steamer that had just been sighted, the Captain became concerned. The approaching ship had been a few points off the starboard bow before it disappeared. Kendall had just completed a slight turn to starboard as part of his planned route, but now could see nothing but fog. He ordered both engines full astern, and when the forward momentum of the Empress slowed, ordered an all stop. The Empress was 'dead in the water', and whistled a warning to the inbound steamer. The responding whistle seemed safely to starboard. It was 1:50am, and the blinded Empress sat tensely silent.

A few minutes later, a Norwegian collier, the Storstad, materialized in the fog, making straight for the Empress's starboard hull. "FULL AHEAD," screamed Kendall, while the Storstad, equally surprised, flung herself into full reverse, but it was too late. The Storstad's chiseled bow sliced neatly into the Empress, opening a wound 25 feet high and 14 feet wide. The St. Lawrence gushed into the ship, the whole vessel listed towards her injury. A frenzied squabble with death had begun.

Kendall tried to get his ship closer to shore by keeping the engines full ahead, but the engine room was quickly flooded and momentum died. Marconi operators Edward Bamford and Ronald Ferguson, the latter in his pajamas, gaped in awe from the wireless room on the Empress as the lights of the Storstad disappeared down the starboard side. Incredulous and unsure, they tapped out a message; "May have struck ship..." then quickly added an S.O.S. call with the qualifier, "listing terribly".

Drawing of disaster Drawing of the disaster
-Lynx Images Collection
The Empress of Ireland was entirely consumed by water within a desperate fourteen minutes. The collision, devastating as it was, was scarcely felt by some who likened it to a gentle bump against a quay. Many were still in their bunks when death took them. Kendall rasped out an order to his chief to have all lifeboats lowered and, yes, there were enough to save every passenger, if only there had been more time, and if offered him assistance, but Irving replied "Look after yourself first, old man. But God bless you all the same." He managed to get a life-belt around his wife, and as Abbot leapt into the water, he saw the Irvings locked in an embrace. Laurence Irving's body would be found later, a fragment of his wife's nightdress still clutched in his hand.

Salvation Army Major George Atwell grabbed his wife and ran up to the deck as water poured into the passageways. Clinging to the railings he found Mr. and Mrs. Foord with their baby. The young parents noticed that Atwell's wife had a life belt and thrust the baby at them, pleading with them to take it. Atwell knew it would be nearly impossible for him, but he agreed without hesitation. Just then staff band member, Kenneth McIntyre, handed Mrs. Foord his own life belt and the lady, to Atwell's relief, took her child back. The whole of the Foord family perished.

Sir Seton-Karr blundered out of his cabin and straight into his young English neighbour, Mr. Darling. Seton-Karr carried a life-belt, Darling was empty handed. Seton-Karr thrust his life-belt at the stranger, insisting the man take it, that he could get another, then disappeared back inside his cabin. He didn't make it out alive. Darling, however, ran up to the deck and climbed over the railings onto the almost horizontal port side hull. There he found the young ship's doctor lodged half way out of a port hole. He managed to pull the doctor free.

By now the port hull sloped gently down into the water and people walked down it, as if on a beach, scantily clad, some with cork life-belts. The ship had lost all power and inside the dark passages were filled with blind terror. But that didn't stop Salvation Army Captain Rufus Spooner from venturing below deck to gather blankets and life belts for some of the ladies. The stairs were at such an angle, he claimed, "An angel of mercy must have lifted me up them." Spooner survived in the water, and was pulled onto a rescue boat.

George Crellin, a British Columbian farmer, carried a struggling little girl on his back as he swam through the bodies, even though her weight exhausted him to the point of near drowning. The two of them eventually would be pulled out of the water into a boat, and Crellin, on learning that the child had lost her family, would convince his wife to take her into their home. But for now he focused on battling the downward powers of gravity.

The black waters frothed with chaos. As the ship heeled over it crushed a full life-boat just escaping from its side. The Empress began sucking water, debris and victims into stacks and ventilation ports, then something in the belly of the ship exploded, spewing forth mangled contents.

The fog had dissipated as quickly as it had arrived, leaving the Norwegian collier, the Storstad, wreathed confusion. Captain Thomas Anderson had readied his lifeboats for evacuation, but soon ascertained that his own ship was taking no water. That's when he heard, for the first time, meagre cries for help splitting the distant night. He immediately sent his crew to help. One of the first to be brought aboard was the Empressís Dr. Grant who set to work reviving his ship mates. Although weak with shock himself, he treated case after case of exposure, lacerations, fractures. One of his patients was distraught and barely coherent, "Doctor," he said, "there is only one thing I am sorry for... that they did not let me drown." It was Captain Kendall. He had leapt from his doomed bridge and been hauled into lifeboat.

The Norwegian Captainís wife, who was with him for most long voyages, leapt to her role as saviour with vigour. She racked the Storstad for garments and coverings for her three hundred near naked and shivering guests, and plied them with whiskey and coffee. Wireless operator Ferguson, completely naked and stunned from witnessing the death of his crewmates, encountered Mrs. Anderson as he made his way to the warm engine room on the Storstad. "She said something in Norwegian that sounded sympathetic, and took off her long blue scarf and gave it to me. I tied it around my neck and carried on!"

The levels of class also floundered as factory workers huddled with socialites, bellhops with officers, trying to warm their numb frames. Mrs. Anderson did notice one passenger, however, who was dry, immaculately turned out, and dripping with diamonds. Mrs. Ethel Paton had awoken with the whistles, had taken the time to dress, with the help of her assistant, and, on reaching the upper deck, had tumbled gracefully into a waiting lifeboat. To Mrs. Paton's great relief, class would be fished back from the deep in Quebec where first-class survivors would be accommodated in the Chateau Frontenac, and the lady herself would be whisked back to Sherbrooke in the comfort of her private railway carriage.

The tug Eureka and the government ship, Lady Evelyn, alerted by Fergusonís first S.O.S., rushed from Point-au-Pere to the scene as fast as they could, but most of the people they pulled from the water were lifeless. They transported all survivors and 213 bodies to the little town of Rimouski. Citizens there went to outstanding lengths to absorb the distress of the tragedy. They took in survivors, fitted them with new clothes, built coffins for the bodies. One survivor said of Rimouski, "It was the most wonderful place in the world."

The bodies were shipped back to Quebec and lowered to the docks to the sound of a single bugle. More than ten thousand watched in silence. Emotions climbed to the surface with each passing crude coffin, until the sailors passed carrying one tiny white coffin each, and the crowd openly sobbed. Of one hundred and thirty-eight children aboard the Empress of Ireland, only four had survived.

An inquiry--a fact-finding tribunal--was held in Quebec in June of that year. Both captains acidly blamed each other: the Storstad should have tried to block the gash, to physically stay the rush of water, claimed Kendall; impossible! the Empress had been in forward motion, argued Anderson. Kendall was absolved of any blame by the Canadian inquiry. Likewise, Anderson was found guiltless by a Norwegian inquiry. By July, the newspapers could turn their voracious appetites to the outbreak of The Great War. Both captains enlisted. Both served on ships that were torpedoed. Both survived.

Stordsat The Norwegian collier, Storstad, after colliding with the Empress of Ireland
-Lynx Images Collection

Events in bloodied Europe were so explosive, they all but obliterated the Empress of Ireland from public memory. She destroyed 1012 lives, yet remains in murky water, obscure in the pages of history. An impossibly difficult salvage operation in July of 1914 recovered most of the mail, money and silver, and added one more fatality to the site. Some bodies were retrieved, too, but more than seven hundred still guard their secrets in the recesses of the wreck.

Copyright Lynx Images Inc. No part of this story may be reproduced without permission of the publisher.

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