RMS Empress of Ireland sets sail

It was on this day in 1906 in Belfast, Northern Ireland that Canadian Pacific steamship RMS Empress of Ireland launched to carry passengers and mail between Québec and Liverpool, along with her sister ship RMS Empress of Britain.

The ship was 570 feet (174 m) in length with a beam of 66 feet (20.1 m) and displaced 14,191 tons. Her service speed was 18 knots (33 km/h), two propellers and she had a capacity of 1,580 passengers and crew.

The Empress of Ireland was not a glamorous luxury liner, but she had her own orchestra. She was hit and sank in the St. Lawrence on May 29, 1914.

The ocean liner’s sudden sinking in the frigid St. Lawrence River is still Canada’s most deadly maritime disaster in peacetime.

empress_of_ireland_stampAccording to a Canada Post article, the Empress had cast off from Québec the previous afternoon with 1,477 passengers and crew on board. It was bound for Liverpool, England, on a routine sailing – the first of the 1914 season. It was Captain Henry George Kendall’s first voyage in command of the Empress, but the vessel had been making the trip regularly since its launch in 1906.

The ship had just made a mail stop in Rimouski, Quebec, dispatched its navigator and was nearing Pointe-au-Père when the fog engulfed it. The gloom also descended on the SS Storstad, a heavy Norwegian collier, 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 on a collision course. The coal ship ripped open the hull of the Empress and frigid water poured in. Soon the Empress was over on its side, and then it slipped beneath the surface, taking all of 14 minutes to sink. More than 1,000 people lost their lives.

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, admits too that until she was asked to submit a proposal for the stamp, she hadn’t heard of the Empress disaster – which may be the case 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. 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.”

mintempressThe Royal Canadian Mint also released two coins – a 50-cent silver plated and a one ounce fine silver $20 coin – to honour the anniversary as part of its “Lost ships in Canadian waters” series.

According to a Mint article, while the Empress will be forever linked with its tragic end,  it is also remembered for the thousands of immigrants who boarded this great liner to make their journey to a new life in Canada. In 1999, the wreck site was classified as a historical and archaeological property, and it has since earned a protected status as a National Historic Site.

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