“You Have Sunk My Ship!”: RMS Empress of Ireland

Empress of Ireland Courtesy Wiki

The Empress of Ireland is somewhat of a forgotten episode. If one were to ask the average person what they thought of when they mentioned the word shipwreck their answer would most likely be Titanic or more recently Renaor Costa Concordia.

The Empress of Ireland was built in Clyde, Scotland, destined for transatlantic  travel between Quebec and Liverpool. In 1906 the grand Empress took her maiden voyage. After the Titanic disaster in 1912, the Empress carried a more than adequate complement of lifesaving equipment. On May 28, 1914 the Empress sailed from Quebec down the St. Lawrence and into history.

Formal portrait of Captain Henry Kendall, the ...

Up in the bridge Captain Henry Kendall, 1st Officer Edward Jones and 3rd Officer Charles Moore were on watch. So far things had been uneventful. Lookout John Carroll sighted a vessel and Kendall altered his course in plenty of time so that the Empress and the other ship would pass ‘green-to-green’. Then a fog appeared, shrouding the other vessel. Kendall stopped the Empress and blowing the ship’s whistle he ‘signaled’ to the stranger

I am going astern on my engines

When the Empress had stopped he again messaged

My ship is not moving

The Storstad, which was the vessel’s name, answered, but what came next was nothing short of a nightmare. Out of the fog and night the Storstad was bearing down on the Empress. Kendall tried to maneuver out of the ship’s way and told the Storstad to go astern, which they did. Still it was too late. The Storstad went between the Empress’ ribs slicing into the ship.

The Storstad was a Norwegian collier. It was designed in such a way that it was able to plow through ice. Taking that into account, one could only imagine what this type of ship could do to another. It’s master, Thomas Andersen, was resting in his cabin when the Empress was first sighted. 1st Mate Alfred Toftenes and 3rd Mate Jacob Saxe were on the bridge observing the Empress when a fog rolled in.  The crew of the Storstad thought that Kendall intended to pass red-to-red, as they had seen Kendall’s red light just before the fog encased it. Toftenes slowed the ship down, while Saxe replied to Kendall’s whistle. Andersen was soon on the bridge and just in time to see the Empress in his path. He ordered engines full astern. The Storstad ripped into the side of the Empress, but soon broke free from the hole. The Empress disappeared into the fog. Toftenes inspected the crumpled bow of the Storstad and reported to Andersen that “She still floats”.

Aboard the Empress, passengers were hardly aware of the collision. It had been very slight, not nearly enough to arouse one’s fears. And maybe that would have been the end of it, passengers and crew would have just gone back to bed. But that wasn’t all. The ship was taking on a big list, throwing people from their bunks. Water shot into open portholes and the lights went out. Those that were not drowned had to battle panic-stricken crowds in the corridors, maneuver through the dark ship and/or struggle to climb stairs sideways.

Many efforts made to shut watertight doors were fruitless, due to the Empress’ list. The watertight doors, unlike the Titanic and many other ships, was cranked shut by a lever. It is unknown how many, if any, watertight doors were shut that night.

Again the wireless operators braved the tremendous circumstances. Like the Republic and Titanic before them, operators Ronald Ferguson and Edward Bramford stuck to their posts as long as they could. Chief Operator Ferguson had just gone to bed but had not fallen asleep, when the collision occurred. He got up and checked to see what was wrong. Taking over the set he sent Bramford to get him clothes, since he was wearing his pajamas.

Empress of Ireland: Standby for distress call. We have hit something.
Station at Father Point: OK. Here We Are.

Ferguson changed clothes and Chief Officer Steede soon appeared telling him to get an SOS off. Already Ferguson was having trouble staying seated as he sent the message.

Empress of Ireland: SOS, we have hit something, sinking fast, send help.

Lady Grey Courtesy Library of Congress

Father Point asked for his position, but Ferguson didn’t know. Instead he thought it was something like “20 miles past Rimouski” although he wasn’t certain.

Father Point: OK, sending Eureka, Lady Evelyn to your assistance.

The wireless set went dead shortly after. Ferguson instead tried to get the emergency set together. Although officers relived them, Bramford and Ferguson didn’t give up. When the acid spilled from the batteries, then they gave up, and not a moment too soon. Along with many others Ferguson was thrown off the ship when she rolled over on her side. Later he was picked up by the Lady Evelyn and took over its wireless set, since they carried no operator. Bramford also survived.

Father Point Courtesy Library of Congress

The crew raced to alert passengers and began swinging the boats out. 1st Officer Jones tried to get the boats away. When the list got bad Jones let himself down into the St. Lawrence. He was later picked up by a lifeboat, which he took command of and began picking up survivors. When the Empress rolled over on her side many people were thrown into the river. Others managed to stay on the exposed side of the Empress, thinking the ship was aground. Then it sank taking with her about 800 souls.

Not long afterwards the dreaded fog disappeared. Aboard the Storstad, the Norwegians were wondering what had happened to the Empress, when they heard the heart-rending screams of the dying in the water. Fourteen minutes after the collision the Empress had sunk leaving behind a mass of humanity struggling for their lives in the cold St. Lawrence. The Storstad sailed towards the screams and began lowering their lifeboats. They picked up a number of survivors and took them back to the ship, where they were cared for as best as could be expected. 2nd Mate Einar Reinterts went in charge of a boat and arrived in time to see the Empress roll over and sink. He piled in his boat more people then it was designed to hold. On his second trip back to the wreck site there were  hardly any living to be found. Saxe also filled his boat far above its maximum capacity. He didn’t stop there. On his way back to the Storstad he heard a woman yelling.

Saxe: Boys turn the boat around. There’s a woman calling.

The survivors grumbled since they were on the verge of being swamped.

Saxe: I’m in command of this boat. Turn her around.

The Dead Courtesy of Library of Congress

Kendall also survived, having been blown to the surface.  He was picked up by one of the Empress’ boats and like Jones he took command of the boat and began picking up survivors. He loaded it up as much as he could and took the pitiful group to the Storstad. At the Storstad he got volunteers from among the Empress’ crew and returned to pick up more survivors. Kendall was ‘half-dead’ himself. When he finally met with Andersen he told him “You have sunk my ship”. He later collapsed in the Storstad’s chart room completely exhausted. Ironically, one woman said to Mrs. Andersen “If it had not been for you, we should have gone to the bottom”.

The Lady Evelyn arrived too late. She along with the Eureka took the survivors off of the Storstad and whisked them away to Rimouski. There they were given food and clothing. Later the Lady Evelyn and Eureka returned to pick up the dead. The victims were taken to Pier 27 to await identification or in some cases to be misidentified. More than once a body would be claimed by several different people. 1,012 were dead, 134 of them children. 465 had survived, 4 of them children.

The Children Courtesy of the Library of Congress

And so it was. As with all disasters one life lost is one too many. An inquiry held later could clear up some things about what went wrong and place the blame, but it could not bring back the lives that were lost.

Source: Croall, James. Fourteen Minutes: Last Voyage of the Empress of Ireland.

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7 thoughts on ““You Have Sunk My Ship!”: RMS Empress of Ireland

  1. I’ve always been interested in learning more about this tragedy. It’s definitely been overlooked, occurring as it did between the Titanic and the Lusitania disasters, and just one month before the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, effectively starting World War I.

    And thanks for the heads-up on the book. I’ve long sought more information on the Empress of Ireland, and Croall’s work seems ideal. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another book or two come out in the next couple of years, what with the 100th anniversary of the sinking coming up.

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  2. I guess it’s more remembered in Canada than elsewhere. I’m looking forward to more books on the subject and had had the same thought as you. 14 Minutes is worth a read, especially with information so scarce.

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    • Thanks for the info, Joe! I wasn’t aware there were any books that dealt with Kendall’s life. I’ve always wanted to delve into his life. Your book is going on my wishlist!

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