Trans-Atlantic crossings have always been critical to both sides of the Atlantic (look at the chaos caused by the recent Icelandic volcanic eruption). Although the giant liners of Cunard and White Star are best remembered, they were by no means alone. Ships were constantly coming and going, carrying passengers and freight, both ways across The Pond.
Although less glamorous than the liners that sailed in & out of New York, there were many busy ships that called on the Canadian ports. One was the Empress of Ireland, which in 1914 was serving the Quebec City to Liverpool route.
Early this morning, 96 years ago, the Empress was outbound from Canada. She was heading northeast on the St. Lawrence River. It was 2:00 a.m., and most of the passengers were sleeping.
In a thick fog, the Norwegian coal-carrier Storstad struck the Empress on the starboard side. The damage was extensive. There was only limited time to sound an alarm, and electricity failed quickly, plunging the ship into darkness. The Empress was gone in 14 minutes.
The survivors were picked up by the few lifeboats that had been launched, and were carried back and forth to the Storstad, which had stayed afloat. Captain Henry Kendall, who was thrown into the water as the ship rolled over, supervised the rescue efforts and likely saved many lives by organizing the lifeboats.
All together the Empress took 1,024 people with her. It remains the deadliest maritime disaster in Canadian history. In spite of this, the ship is mostly forgotten today. The St. Lawrence Seaway is a very busy channel. Hundreds of ships steam over the Empress every day, very few knowing of the tragedy beneath them.
The Salvation Army remembers. A large contingent of members (167) were lost on the ship, traveling to a conference in London. There is a monument to them at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, in Toronto.
The Empress of Ireland is in 130 feet of water, well within the range of scuba equipment, but the currents and poor visibility limit diving