Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Sinking of The Empress

The tragedy of the Empress of Ireland is mostly forgotten today, but just two years after the Titanic struck an iceberg and only one year before the Lusitania became a casualty of war, the waters of Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway claimed her.  In the early hours of May 29, 1914, The Empress was broadsided by a Norwegian coal ship and within fourteen minutes, she plunged 170 feet below the surface taking more than 1,000 doomed men, women and children with her. 

Capable of carrying 1,550 passengers, (300 in first class, 450 in second class and another 800 in steerage), the grand ship weighed 14,000 tons and could cruise up to 20 knots.  She made the 2,800-mile trip from Liverpool to Quebec in a remarkable six days—four on the formidable Atlantic and two in the relative safety of the St. Lawrence Seaway.  As the Empress sailed down that seaway for her 96th and final voyage, she carried sixteen steel lifeboats, 20 collapsibles and six canvas types.  All together, these rescue boats accommodated 500 more people than were actually on board that morning.  Since the Titanic disaster, mandatory fire, navigation and evacuation drills were routine.
After a brief rendezvous with a pilot cutter, the Empress picked up speed with Seaman John Carroll watching from the crow’s nest.  He spotted two tiny lights off to the east as a low bank of fog crept toward them from the shore.  The captain gave three short blasts from the Empress’ whistle hoping to make the other ship aware of their presence.  As the fog worsened, the captain ordered the engines turned off and then put the ship into full reverse hoping it would come to a complete stop.  The oncoming ship signaled back with a single long blast, but kept moving closer.

It was the worst possible situation.  The Storstad was a powerful Norwegian collier weighing 6,000 tons and hauling a full load of coal.  In the thickening fog, the Storstad’s confused first mate ordered his ship to turn what he thought was away from the Empress.  Instead they headed straight for her.  Built with a sharp vertical stern designed to cut through ice-filled waters, she hit the Empress below the water line.  With a gaping 25-foot hole, the damaged ship instantly took on water—60,000 gallons per second.
A hasty SOS was sent, but authorities were unable to determine the ship’s exact location.  Lifeboats were launched but within eight minutes, the Empress lost power and listed hard to the right.  Two minutes later, she rolled onto her right side crushing one of the lifeboats beneath her.  Fourteen minutes after the collision, she succumbed to the water completely disappearing below the surface.  While only 465 people survived, 1,012 perished including 134 children.

Although, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland was the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history, her story lacked the dramatic element of the Titanic.  She was not as glamorous nor was she on her maiden voyage.  Foundering in the St. Lawrence Seaway was not the same as sinking in the vast Atlantic Ocean.  Of course, timing was also a factor.  Just two months later, World War I erupted in Europe and modern warfare preoccupied the world.  The following year, when the Lusitania was torpedoed generating international headlines, the tragedy of the Empress faded into oblivion.


  1. This is a fascinating (and terrible) story. I had no idea!

  2. Thanks so much for reading my post. This was just an overview but the Empress is a sad tale and one of the forgotten stories from our past.

  3. Thanks for posting this! My Great Aunt and her young daughter perished in the sinking almost 100 years ago. A big commemoration is planned next year in Rimouski, Quebec and a number of events are being planned to honour those lost in the sinking.

  4. You are most welcome! It's nice to hear that these men, women and children will be honored. They certainly should be. The link you provided is a wealth of information. Putting names and faces together makes this tragedy all the more real. Anyone interested in further information, I highly recommend you visit the site: