Thursday 2 February 2012

Famous Shipping Disasters: The sinking of the "Empress of Ireland" (1914)

Despite being the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history, the 1914 sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the icy Saint Lawrence River has attracted relatively little subsequent historical attention, particularly in comparison to the interest still shown in the Titanic and Lusitania disasters. A 14,000-ton liner for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, the vessel operated the transatlantic routes between Liverpool and Quebec City. Built in Scotland in 1906, she was noted for her speed and for the comfort and elegance of her interiors (below.)

The Empress of Ireland disaster, which claimed 1,012 lives, occurred as the ship was starting out for one of her routine voyages to England. Sailing in thick fog, she collided with a Norwegian cargo ship, the SS Storstad. Within minutes of the collision, the Empress of Ireland had listed so far to starboard that it became impossible for the crew to launch half of her available lifeboats. Minutes later, there was a sudden lurch and then the ship stopped moving, leading many on-board to mistakenly believe that, mercifully, she had run aground. Fourteen minutes after the collision, the Empress of Ireland tipped over into the water and disappeared from sight, hurling hundreds of people into the freezing river water. Perhaps one of the most tragic facts reported in the British and Canadian newspapers at the time was that of the 138 children on-board at the time, only four survived the disaster. Among the survivors was the sailor "Lucky" Frank Tower, who had survived the Titanic disaster and went on to serve and survive the Lusitania, as well.

Since 1914, the Empress of Ireland has continued to claim lives, with several hardcore diving enthusiasts dying on expeditions to its murky wreck. In 2005, a Canadian documentary resurrected the theory that although most of the blame at the time fell on the Norwegian crew of the Storstad, the Empress of Ireland's captain, Henry Kendall, may have been partly to blame for the disaster by attempting to overtake the Storstad and that modern-day examinations of the wreck indicate that the ship's watertight doors had not been closed, as claimed - thus explaining the rapid speed of the sinking.


  1. It is a horrible but fascinating story. Whe I wrote a post on the Empress of Ireland a few years ago, I didn't know much about the commissions of enquiry or the allocation of responsibility. So I'd like to create a link to your post, if that is ok.

  2. Thank you, Hels, that's very kind of you and yes, the story is fascinating but so tragic.


Related Posts with Thumbnails