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Mar 16

Canada’s Titanic – The Empress of Ireland

On its 100th anniversary, the sinking of the Titanic continues to fascinate people around the world. But another shipwreck, almost equal in human tragedy, has slipped from popular memory, even though the vessel helped build modern Canada.

The Empress of Ireland sank in 1914 in the St. Lawrence River after colliding with the Storstad, a Norwegian coal ship. A total of 1012 passengers and crew died, compared with the Titanic’s 1514.

The loss of the Empress of Ireland remains the largest maritime accident in Canadian history.

The Storstad After the Collision
Unlike the Titanic, which went down on its maiden voyage, the Empress of Ireland regularly plied the Atlantic Ocean. Between 1906 and her sinking, the Empress completed 95 round trips, mostly between Liverpool, England, and Halifax or Quebec City. She was one of two Canadian Pacific ships plying the Atlantic between the UK and Canada, bringing thousands of immigrants, most drawn by the prospect of free land on the Prairies.

For years, the remains of the Empress lay on the river bottom off Rimouski, Quebec, where it was picked over by souvenir hunting divers. It was designated a national historic site in 1988, but it wasn’t until 11 years later that the Quebec government tightened regulations to stop souvenir collecting. A small museum dedicated to the Empress now operates in Rimouski for half the year.

The Empress of Ireland played a huge role in forming modern Canada. It’s estimated approximately 500,000 Canadians are descendants of passengers who arrived on the ship. It is Canada’s Titanic.

The day before the tragic sinking, the Empress of Ireland had left Quebec City, bound for Liverpool. Sailing in fog, she was struck near Rimouski by the Storstad, which sliced an enormous gash in the starboard side of her hull. Water rushed in and the ship listed severely, allowing more water to rush in through open portholes. With the ship on its side, some survivors squeezed out of portholes on the opposite side of the ship. But most passengers were trapped inside and drowned. The ship sank in 14 minutes.

According to author Derek Grout in Empress of Ireland, The Story of an Edwardian Liner, those 14 minutes would make few people proud.

“There were no gentlemanly cries of ‘Women and children first!’ In the dark of night it was a free for all and surviving the sinking was a matter of luck at best.”

A board of inquiry would later blame the crew of the Storstad, but Norwegian authorities conducted their own investigation and disputed these findings. A Canadian documentary, The Last Voyage of the Empress, re-enacted the collision and concluded the fog was mostly to blame, but Empress Captain Henry Kendall was not without fault.

A salvage operation shortly after the collision recovered the ship’s mail and 212 bars of silver, worth about $1.1 million today.

Within months of the sinking, World War One was underway, and the thousands of men dying in the trenches every day soon overshadowed the casualties of the Empress of Ireland.

Some believe Canadian Pacific wanted to keep things quiet. With ships on the Atlantic, a railway and hotels spanning Canada, and more ships on the Pacific, it was possible to circumnavigate the globe without leaving the care of CP. The company was reluctant to air details of the sinking.

In 1971, David Brinnin, an American poet, literary critic and travel writer, dismissed the significance of the Empress of Ireland wreck. Brennin wrote that the dead were nothing better than “a lot of middle class Anglo-Saxons and a long roster of Salvation Army officers and executives from one end of Canada to the other.”

So in 1998, when maritime historian David Zeni published his book on the ship, he titled it The Forgotten Empress.

A few small tales have lived on. According to James Croall, writing in the 1978 book Fourteen Minutes, the ship’s cat, a yellow tabby “of doubtful antecedents”, fled down the gangway just as the ship was leaving. A steward ran after him and brought the cat back, but again the animal bolted and was left behind.

Efforts are underway to ensure that when the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland rolls around in 2014, Canadians will be more aware of this nationally important maritime disaster.

This story struck a small personal chord for me. Many years after this tragedy, I sailed to Canada as an immigrant aboard the CP’s Empress of England. We too left from Liverpool to Quebec City to begin a new life.

It also occurs to me this would be a great background story for a romance novel!

Today I am part of the St. Patricks’ Day Blog Hop. Lots of prizes available
One commenter on my blog can win a signed copy of one of my books.

81 comments

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  1. Confucius Cat

    Such an interesting story. BTW I love the cover of Passion in the Blood. Hot guy’s are always a draw. P.R. Mason pmas0518 at bellsouth dot net

    1. Anna Markland

      Thanks Pat. I’m rather partial to the cover myself, though I think Conquering Passion is my favourite.

  2. Brenda

    I love your post–one of the best I have read so far.
    I have always been intrigued by The Titanic and now I am going to do research on The Empress Of Ireland. And since I’m a Canadian you would think I knew more about our own history.
    I have heard of the tragedy of The Empress of Ireland, but not as much as the Titanic.

    1. Anna Markland

      Hi Brenda
      Yes, it was an eye opener for me too reading about this tragedy. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    2. Chris Klausen

      I have perhaps the largest private collection of Empress related items. Please visit my website to see a small part of the collection at http://www.Empress-of-Ireland-Klausen.com. Thanks!

    3. Anna Markland

      Interesting. thanks for the link.

  3. Linda Andrews

    Thanks for the post. I hadn’t heard of it before and now want to know more. I can’t believe anyone would dismiss such a tragedy. I hope the cat found a good home.

    1. Anna Markland

      Hi Linda
      I’ve worried about that darned cat too! I suppose the war overshadowed the event. Sad!

  4. Drea Becraft

    Loved the post I had never heard of this ship before!

    Happy St. Pattys Day!

    ~*Drea*~
    dreabecraft(@)aol.com

    1. Anna Markland

      Hi Drea,
      yes, it’s a story that needs to be told isn’t it.

  5. Anne

    I had never heard of this ship/story either. Interesting!

    acm05atjuno.com

    1. Anna Markland

      Hi Anne
      I agree. The Salvation Army has kept the memory alive. They lost most of their Canadian officers.

  6. *Sara*

    Thanks for the story, i had never heard it before as well

    Happy St. Patty’s Day!
    ~Sara
    sarabook7237@gmail.com

    1. Anna Markland

      Hi Sara
      Thanks for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  7. Fierce Dolan

    I loved reading this! Definitely the most interesting thing I’ve read on this Hop! Stop by if you get a chance:
    http://www.fiercedolan.com/blog/2012/03/15/celtic-culture-appreciation-day-or-why-i-meh-st-patricks-day/

    Cheers!!

    1. Anna Markland

      Thanks for the compliment. I had hoped people would be interested.

  8. Jean P

    A very interesting post, have never heard of this ship, always find out something new and interesting on these blog hops.
    Jean
    skpetal at hotmail dot com

    1. Anna Markland

      Hi Jean
      Glad you enjoyed the post. Now more people know!

  9. debbie

    I would love to read your book.
    Happy St. Patricks Day.
    twoofakind12@yahoo.com

    1. Anna Markland

      Good luck and thanks for the comment.

  10. miki

    Happy St Patrick’s Day
    i would be happy to win your book if the giveaway is open to international too

    all the best
    isabelle(dot)frisch(at)gmail(dot)com

    1. Anna Markland

      Hi Isabelle
      The book giveaway for my blog is open to anyone, but the Goodreads draw is US and Canada only.

  11. Hillary

    Awesomeness!

    Thanks for the chance to win 🙂

    Hillary
    hillacurr@gmail.com

    1. Anna Markland

      Hi Hillary
      Thanks for your comment.

  12. Lioness

    Woah! Thanks for the chance to win a book 😀
    I like how they sound 🙂

    cigam9 at gmail dot com

    1. Anna Markland

      Thanks for your comment and good luck

  13. Adriana

    What a fascinating and tragic piece of history – I’d never heard of it. Hope you’re putting it in your fiction!

    Adriana

    1. Anna Markland

      I have it tucked away for when I try a more modern era! Thanks for your comment.

  14. Kym

    I love reading about the Titanic, and that era. I would LOVE to win one of your books !

    Happy St Pattys Day !!

    ~Kym
    flwrs4ever(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Anna Markland

      Thanks for your comment Kym. I wish you the luck o’ the Irish!

  15. Sarah Kalaitzidis

    Thanks for the great giveaway!!!
    Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
    red_tigergirl2(at)hotmail(dot)com

    1. Anna Markland

      Thaks for your comment Sarah. Good luck.

  16. Liese2

    Thanks for the giveaway!
    Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
    sqwalker2@hotmail.com

    1. Anna Markland

      Thanks for the comment. Good luck.

  17. Carrie Ann Ryan

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!!
    Thanks for hopping with me today!

    carrieannryanwrites(at)gmail.com

    1. Anna Markland

      Enjoyed it. Lots of positive comments.Always makes a writer feel good!

  18. BookAttict

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day & thanks for the amazing giveaway!
    elizabeth @ bookattict . com

    1. Anna Markland

      Thanks for the comment. Good luck.

  19. Unknown

    loved your post- i learned alot from your research- thanks for sharing and for the awesome giveaway!

    I hope i have the luck of the Irish in your giveaway!

    Happy St patrick’s dat!

    catherine0807 at hotmail dot com

    1. Anna Markland

      Thanks for the comment. Good luck.

  20. Na

    I’ve always been fascinated with the Titanic and appreciate this post on the Empress of Ireland. It’s another thing I will look into.

    Cambonified{at}yahoo{dot}com

    1. Anna Markland

      There is probably a lot to be learned from delving into it more. Thanks for the comment.

  21. bas1chs

    Wow, I had no idea! Thank you for sharing this! Now I want to know more.

    Thanks for being part of the giveaway!
    bas1chsemail at gmail dot com

    1. Anna Markland

      Glad you enjoyed the post.

  22. Erica Pike

    Wow, thanks so much for sharing that. Fascinating…and tragic.

    Erica

    eripike at gmail dot com

    1. Anna Markland

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  23. Nikki

    Awesome contest!! I hope you have a great Saint Patty’s Day!!
    viajeradelmar@aol.com

    1. Anna Markland

      It’s going well so far.

  24. latanya

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    dlatany at gmail dot com

    1. Anna Markland

      You’re welcome.

  25. Maria pronounced Mariah

    What a great story! Thanks for sharing and participating in the hop!

    mmafsmith at gmail dot com

    1. Anna Markland

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  26. desitheblonde

    wow thanks f or the hop and then hope to win and read it for you

    desi the lbonde at msn dto com

    1. Anna Markland

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  27. Kassandra

    Always looking for new to me authors!

    sionedkla@gmail.com

    1. Anna Markland

      Thanks for your comment. Hope you get a chance to enjoy my books.

  28. Sue Sattler

    Thanks for the great giveaway!

    proudarmymom32(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Anna Markland

      You’re welcome!

  29. June M.

    Thank you for the information and for joining the hop.
    HSPD!
    June
    manning_j2004 at yahoo dot com

    1. Anna Markland

      You’re welcome. It’s been fun!

  30. wanda f

    Enjoyed your post.Thank you for this chance to win

    flanagan@mebtel.net

    1. Anna Markland

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  31. VanillaOrchids

    Nice post! Thank you for the giveaway.
    Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

    Pam
    vanillaorchids69(at)gmail(dot)com

    1. Anna Markland

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  32. Unknown

    Thank you so much for participating in this hop!

    Gena Robertson
    robertsongena@hotmail.com

  33. Mel B

    WOW! I didn’t know that about the Empress of Ireland. I love learning about history.
    Mel
    bournmelissa AT hotmail DOT com

    1. Anna Markland

      History can be fascinating. Like visiting a foreign country!

  34. Krysykat

    Thanks for the chance to win!

    Morganlafey86(at)aol(dot)com

    1. Anna Markland

      You’re welcome.

  35. Shadow

    Thanks for sharing and for the giveaway! Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
    shadowluvs2read(at)gmail(dot)com

    1. Anna Markland

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  36. Catherine Lee

    What a great history lesson about my Northern neighbors.

    Erin Go Bragh!

    catherinelee100 at gmail dot com

    1. Anna Markland

      Indeed! Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  37. thefishingwidow

    Wheee! Maritime History and St. Patrick’s on the Blog hop! Awesome! Love it!

    Amy

    thefishingwidow(at)akmarshall(dot)com

    1. Anna Markland

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  38. Bridget Keown

    Thanks so much for sharing such a fascinating story!
    bekeown(at)gmail(dot)com

    1. Anna Markland

      You’re welcome. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  39. donnas

    Great post. I have never heard of this one before but what a history.

    bacchus76 at myself dot com

  40. Anna Markland

    Truth be told, I don’t think most Canadians know about it either. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

  41. Karen Autio

    The Empress of Ireland is still very much the Forgotten Empress, but more well known now than several years ago when I began researching the ship for my first novel. Second Watch (Sono Nis Press) is based on the shipwreck and was inspired by the tale of a silver spoon I received from my Finnish grandmother. I hope you do write a book inspired by the Empress of Ireland!

    1. Anna Markland

      You’re right that it is still a little-known story. I’m still entrenched in the Middle Ages, so a book about the ship will be a long way off. I’ll check out your book.

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