On today’s date in 1914, the RMS Empress of Ireland departed from Québec City and was rammed in the fog by the Norwegian SS Storstad in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Point aux Pères, Qué. Mor than 1,000 lives would be lost, but nearly 500 people were saved and divers later recovered about $1 million in silver bars. It was Canada’s worst – and the Atlantic’s third largest – maritime disaster.
The ship had just made a mail stop in Rimouski, Que., dispatched its navigator and was nearing Point aux Pères when the fog engulfed it. The gloom also descended on the SS Storstad, which was closer to the Empress than anyone realized.
When each ship’s crew could again see the other ship’s lights, it was too late: they were already on a collision course. The coal ship ripped open the hull of the Empress and frigid water poured in. Soon the Empress was on its side, and then it slipped beneath the surface, taking all of 14 minutes to sink.
In 2014, Canada Post issued a stamp to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland.
Susan Scott, designer of the international rate stamp, admitted that until she was asked to submit a proposal for the stamp, she hadn’t heard of the Empress disaster – something that may ring true for many Canadians.
“I read David Zeni’s Forgotten Empress. I began working on ideas incorporating the sudden fog, which seemed the most significant factor in the accident,” said Scott. “I found many photographic and painted images of the Empress reproduced on old postcards and advertising leaflets of the time – and I drove along the St. Lawrence, to get a sense of place, to study the balance of water and sky.”
According to Isabelle Toussaint, the designer for the domestic rate issue, the story of the Empress had been lost to history, even locally.
“I was surprised to learn that this majestic ship was laying at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River, at approximately 300 kilometres from Québec, my hometown.”