Red Deer connection to the Empress of Ireland tragedy

On May 29, 2014, one of the worst tragedies in Canadian history will be commemorated. The date is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the St. Lawrence River, not far from Rimouski, Quebec. Of the 1,477 passengers and crew on board the ship, 1,022 lost their lives following a collision with a Norwegian steamer, the Storstad.

The Empress of Ireland was the pride of the Canadian Pacific Steamship line, along with its sister passenger liner, the Empress of Britain. It was constructed in 1905-1906 by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company at Govan on the Clyde in Scotland. It was christened on Jan. 27, 1906 and completed its maiden voyage from Liverpool to Montreal at the end of June.

The Empress of Ireland was impressive. It could transport up to 1,900 passengers. It was 170 m (570 ft.) long. Most importantly, it was fast, reliable and comfortable. The Canadian Pacific Company considered it to be one of the jewels in the self-described “Greatest transportation system in the world.”

Thus, there was little expectation of trouble when the Empress of Ireland embarked on its regular voyage to Liverpool, England at the end of May, 1914. However, in the early morning hours of May 29th, a steamer ship was spotted several kilometres in the distance.

When the Storstad was first sighted, the weather was calm and clear. Shortly thereafter, a very dense fog set in. Both ships repeatedly blew their fog whistles and both ships’ crews thought that there was still a safe distance between the two vessels. However, around 2 a.m., the Storstad suddenly emerged from the fog and rammed into the side of the Empress of Ireland.

What happened next was incredibly tragic. Water poured into the large gash in the side of the Empress of Ireland, as well as through the lower portholes of the ship. Almost all of the passengers and crew on the lower decks, many of whom were still asleep in their cabins, quickly drowned.

Several of the passengers on the upper decks were awakened by the collision. The surviving crew quickly started to launch the lifeboats. While some people made it safely into three of those craft, the ship lurched onto its side so rapidly that any further launch of the lifeboats became impossible.

Within 15 minutes of the collision, the Empress of Ireland abruptly plunged to the bottom of the St. Lawrence. Many of the remaining passengers and crew either drowned or died of hypothermia from the frigid waters of the river.

Because of the rapidity of the disaster, there were many conflicting opinions as to what exactly had happened. A commission of inquiry was held in June, headed by Lord Mersey, the same person who had presided at the official investigation into the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

Despite the many inconsistencies in the evidence presented at the inquiry, eventually a finding was made that the accident had largely been the fault of the captain of the Storstad. Understandably, the Norwegians vigorously protested the verdict. The Norwegian government held its own official inquiry and found that the Empress of Ireland’s captain was the person most at fault.

Regardless of the conflicting evidence and verdicts, 840 passengers and 172 crew members lost their lives. Particularly hard hit was the Salvation Army. Many of the passengers were Salvationists on their way to an international convention in London, England. Of the 167 church members aboard the ship, all but eight lost their lives.

According to the news coverage of the time, one of those on the ship was Ensign Florence Peacock. While she had been living in Weyburn, Saskatchewan just before the accident, she was one of the two founding officers of the Salvation Army when it was established in Red Deer in the summer of 1912.

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