January 26, 1906, the Empress of Ireland along with her
sister ship Empress of Britain, was a transatlantic ocean
liner owned by Canadian Pacific Steamship Company that
sailed between Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, and Liverpool,
England. She sank in 1914 after colliding with Storstad in
an incident which claimed 1,012 lives, making it the worst
maritime disaster in Canadian history. Her sinking was
overshadowed by World War I and became a forgotten tragedy.
The Empress of Ireland departed Quebec City for Liverpool at 16:30 local
time on May 28, 1914 with 1,477 passengers and crew. Henry George
Kendall had just been promoted to captain of the Empress of Ireland at
the beginning of the month and it was his first trip down the Saint
Lawrence River in command of the vessel. Early the next morning on May
29, 1914, the ship was proceeding down the channel near Pointe-au-Père,
Quebec (eastern district of the town of Rimouski) in heavy fog. At 02:00
local time, Empress of Ireland collided with the Norwegian collier
Storstad. Storstad did not sink, but Empress of Ireland, with severe
damage to her starboard side, rapidly shipping water, rolled over and
sank within 14 minutes, claiming 1,012 passengers and crewmen. There
were only 465 survivors, out of which only four were children (the other
314 children were lost). Ultimately, the immense loss of life can be
attributed to three things: the location in which Storstad made contact,
failure to close her watertight doors, and failure to close all
portholes aboard. Including the fact that most passengers, at the time
of the crash, were asleep - most not even awakening when the ship was
The cause of the tragedy was disputed by the surviving crew of the
Empress of Ireland and the crew of Storstad. There has been much
speculation as to the circumstances of the sinking. One theory involves
the positioning of the ships when both encountered the fogbank.
According to testimony, Capt. Kendall claimed that he stayed close to
shore, encountered the fog, reversed his engines to stop for about 8
minutes, and was rammed by the Storstad, who was executing a hard,
90-degree turn to the starboard. Another theory has the Empress sailing
north-northeast into the center of the channel, right into the path of
In 1914 the position of ships in darkness could be determined by the
lights they were showing.
White lights mounted on the two main masts were read in conjunction with
the red and green lights indicating port and starboard.
A ship showing red to starboard, green to port and one white mast light
would be coming directly at the observing vessel.
This was the case on that night and both captains expected to pass each
other "green to green". As the fog rolled across the river between the
two vessels, what happened next has never been totally clarified.
A ship showing two white mast lights and one red light would be lying
across the path of the approaching vessel, exposing the starboard side.
A captain in 1914, familiar with the St. Lawrence river, would
reasonably be expected to have avoided a collision, if he had been able
to see the lights on time. As the Storstad crashed into the Empress it
is likely that the fog obscured the other ship until it was too late to
take evasive action.
Either the Empress strayed across the Storstad's bows, or the Storstad
crossed the Empress's path from port to starboard and executed a 90
degree turn to pierce her starboard side.
If the testimony of both captains is to be believed the collision
happened as both vessels were stationary with their engines stopped.
On June 16, 1914, an inquiry was launched in Quebec City and the crew of
Storstad was found responsible for the sinking of Empress of Ireland.
However, an inquiry launched by Norwegians disagreed and cleared
Storstad's crew for all responsibilities. Instead, they blamed Kendall,
captain of Empress of Ireland, for violating the protocol by not passing
port to port. Canadian Pacific Railway won a court case against A. F.
Klaveness, owner of Storstad, for $2,000,000. Unable to afford the
liabilities, A. F. Klaveness was forced to sell Storstad for $175,000 to
the trust funds.
Shortly after the disaster, a salvage operation began on Empress of
Ireland. The salvagers faced the daunting task of recovering bodies as
well as valuables inside the ship. They were also faced with limited
visibility and strong currents from the Saint Lawrence River. One of the
divers was killed when he fell from near the highest point of the wreck
to the riverbed below and his diving equipment was unable to adjust to
the sudden pressure increase. The salvage crew resumed their operations
and recovered 318 bags of mail and 212 bars of silver worth $1,099,000.
A hole had to be made in the hull of Empress of Ireland so the salvagers
could easily retrieve a large safe. In 1964, the wreck was revisited by
a group of Canadian divers who recovered a brass bell. In the 1970s,
another group of divers recovered a stern telemeter, pieces of Marconi
radio equipment, a brass porthole and a compass. Recently, Robert
Ballard visited the wreck of Empress of Ireland and found that it was
being covered by silt. He also discovered that certain artifacts from
fixtures to human remains continued to be taken out by "treasure
hunters". Unlike Titanic, which is only accessible with a submersible,
Empress of Ireland can be accessed by scuba divers, albeit only highly
skilled ones. Numerous recreational divers have since died on the wreck,
mostly through penetration accidents.
The disaster led to a change in thinking among naval architects with
regard to the design of ships bows. The backward slanting bow design of
the day (see picture above) caused, in the event of a collision,
immediate massive fatal damage below the waterline. The effect of the
Storstad's bows on the Empress of Ireland's has been likened to that of
a "chisel being forced into an aluminum can" Designers began to employ
the raked bows that we are familiar with today, ensuring that much of
the energy of a collision is absorbed by the point of the bow above the
waterline of the other ship ensuring less damage under the
The last survivor of the shipwreck, Grace Hannagan Martyn, died in St.
Catharines, Ontario on May 15, 1995 at the age of 88.
"Empress of Ireland" was commemorated in a song by Three Pints Gone, a
Celtic band specializing in traditional folk songs and sea chanties.
"Empress of Ireland" is featured on their CD titled "There Is a Ship,"
all nautical songs. The refrain says, "Nobody there or for miles
anywhere/knew she was sailing to the bottom of the sea/Don't remember
the Empress of Ireland/but always remember me."
The "Empress of the Ireland" shipwreck is referenced in the Clive
Cussler book "Night Probe!"