The Empress of Ireland

The cruise ship cut through the near-freezing water in the dead of night. For the first-, second- and third-class passengers it was an exciting time, ahead of them lay a long voyage across the ocean to a far-flung land.

But it would be a voyage that was to be cruelly cut short, for out of the darkness loomed a solid mass – one which it was impossible to avoid. When the collision occurred it was severe – steel plate juddered and buckled from the impact.

The radio officer managed to send out a message, but things started to happen very fast. The ship began to flood, very, very quickly.

The Empress of Ireland

The Empress of Ireland

In 17 short minutes it was all over and more than a thousand lives were consigned to the deep.

You might be thinking Titanic, but this tragedy occurred two years later, on May 29, 1914 – almost 100 years ago to this day – when The Empress of Ireland sank in Canada’s St Lawrence River.

The ship, which had been bound for Liverpool, collided in thick fog with a Norwegian coal freighter, the Storstad. The two ships had signaled each other, but according to Henry Kendall, captain of The Empress of Ireland, the fog obscured the view.

The next time he saw the Storstad, it was just a ship-length away… too late to avoid catastrophe. The freighter, which had an ice-breaking bow, plunged into the side of the Empress.

The real damage was done, though, when the Storstad backed out,  causing water to rush through the gaping hole.

Captain Henry Kendall

Captain Henry Kendall

Captain Kendall was on the bridge at the time, and quickly ordered the lifeboats to be launched. However, as the Empress of Ireland lurched to her side, he was thrown overboard, and was taken down with her as she sank.

He managed to swim to the surface and clung to a wooden grate until he was hauled aboard a lifeboat. which he immediately used to rescue survivors.

The lifeboat’s crew pulled many people from the water, and deposited them onto the Storstad. Kendall and the crew then spent over an hour scouring for survivors. They only stopped the search when they felt those still in the water would have either drowned or died of hypothermia.

Most of the Empress of Ireland’s passengers were asleep at the time of the sinking, and drowned in their cabins, mainly because their portholes had been left open.

Amongst the 1,021 dead were the English dramatist and novelist Laurence Irving, and the explorer Henry Seton Karr. The statistics make for tragic reading. All but eight of a group of 167 members of the Salvation Army also perished.

Only 465 people survived the tragedy, four of whom were children (the other 134 children were lost). Forty-one women made it ashore out of a list of 310 who were on board.

An interesting aside to the story concerns the ship’s cat, Emmy. She was an orange tabby who never missed a trip. On the day of the Empress of Ireland’s final voyage, Emmy tried repeatedly to leave the ship.

She could not be coaxed aboard and so watched from the roof of a shed at Pier 27 as it sailed away from Quebec City for the last time. Pier 27 would be the place where many of the dead would be deposited in the wake of the tragedy.

Over 1,500 people died on the RMS Titanic. In terms of lives lost, the Empress of Ireland wasn’t far behind. Unlike the Titanic, though, her demise has largely been forgotten outside of Canada.

On the centenary of a terrible tragedy, spare a thought for the Empress of Ireland’s thousand-plus lives now lingering amid the murky depths of an ill-remembered past.




About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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35 Responses to The Empress of Ireland

  1. Lindy Moone says:

    Hey! Finally, a story I am familiar with, if only because I was born in a town on the St Lawrence!

    Interesting about the cat, too. Here in our little Turkish fishing village, about ten years ago, there was a mama cat who gave birth in one of the fishing boats. She moved the kittens around from boat to boat — perhaps to keep them clean, or to prevent tomcats from finding and killing them. When she was off scrounging up food one day, the fishing boat with her kittens (unbeknownst to the crew, since she’d hidden them well) left for a week-long trip to the gulf south of here. As soon as the kittens were discovered, the crew transferred them to another boat that was headed back this way, since they would die without Mama.

    Meanwhile, Mama was pacing the jetty. She ignored all the boats coming in, though — until the one with her kittens in it rounded the headland a kilometer away. Then she went nuts, meowing and carrying on until the boat was tying up. She jumped aboard and promptly found her kittens — just not where she’d left them. My husband was president of the local fishermen’s cooperative at the time, and witnessed the whole thing.


  2. What an interesting story, thank you David! 🙂


  3. Pingback: ASMSG Romance Erotica Ezine – The Empress of Ireland

  4. Carol Ervin says:

    It seems like newsmakers are determined by statistics plus or minus celebrity. A personal tragedy is not news unless it happens to a celebrity, but higher numbers get attention because we’re impressed by statistics and the media thinks more readers will know somebody involved. The Empress of Ireland probably never had as much celebrity and pre-voyage press as the Titanic, but the numbers should have rocked the world of news. I’m glad you’re making us aware.


    • Thanks for the reblog, Carol. I was gobsmacked that I’d never heard of this tragedy until a short time ago. You’re right, the power of celebrity and glamour made Titanic the uber disaster it was.


  5. Carol Ervin says:

    Reblogged this on Carol Ervin's Author Site and commented:
    Here’s a tragedy equal to the Titanic, but with less celebrity.


  6. John L. Monk says:

    Fascinating. Lucky cat 🙂


  7. carolkean says:

    Reblogged this on carolkean and commented:
    The cat knew! Amazing how animals (rats, sinking ships) sense trouble ahead. Earthquakes, I understand, maybe, but two ships in the fog – hmmm, I might pay more attention now when our cat is suddenly spooked.


  8. Carol Kean says:

    I read “destination, Liverpool” and didn’t grasp *Canadian* ship. From 1906 to 1914, 120,000+ European immigrants sailed on the prestigious liner to a new life in Canada….despite its importance the Empress has long been overshadowed by two higher-profile transatlantic sinkings of the same era that also claimed more than 1,000 lives: the Titanic and the Lusitania.


    • In 1945, The Wilhelm Gustloff sank with an estimated loss of 9,400 lives (yes, you read correctly). Another ship, the SS Cap Arcona, also sank that year with the loss of 5,000 people. Incredible figures…


  9. Carol Kean says:

    Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian songwriter and “national treasure” immortalized the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1975 maritime disaster), but I suppose the sinking of the Empress of Ireland didn’t lend itself too well to a melody. 🙂


  10. P. C. Zick says:

    Once again, you introduced me to something new from the past, David. Thanks!


  11. seanmunger says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    The History With A Twist blog has a terrific article that is very timely today–the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, a nautical disaster almost as bad as the Titanic but virtually forgotten by history. The story of this disaster on the St. Lawrence River is a sad and compelling one, and worth reading on the anniversary.


  12. Crash MacDuff says:

    Reblogged this on CrashCourse.


  13. patrickstuart14 says:

    Reblogged this on patrickstuart14's Blog.


  14. Bill Kasal says:

    Thank you, David. Another great piece!


  15. Zachtacular1 says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing. I’m surprised a movie hasn’t been made on the Empress of Ireland yet. Do you know if anyone is in the near future?


  16. nerdlovewords says:

    This is the first time I am hearing of this ship and the disaster. It’s tragic indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

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