Empress of Ireland exhibit stirs memories in Saskatchewan

A travelling exhibit about the largest maritime disaster in Canadian waters is churning up memories for some people in the province.
Dennis Ogresko takes in the Empress of Ireland exhibit at WDM Saskatoon, which opened Thursday and runs for one week. (Kathy Fitzpatrick/CBC)

A travelling exhibit about the largest maritime disaster in Canadian waters is churning up memories for some people in the province.

Passenger ship the Empress of Ireland sank in the St. Lawrence River near Rimouski, Quebec almost a century ago — after making more than 90 round trips between Canada and England. She went down at 1:55 a.m. on May 29, 1914 after fog rolled in, and another ship with a cargo of coal ran into her. 

Fourteen minutes after being hit, she slipped out of sight. Of the 1,477 people on board, 1012 died.

"Unfortunately, even if it's the worst tragedy that happened over Canadian water nobody knows this story because just a few weeks after the First World War started, so people would have something else to talk about," said Pascale St-Amand, a project manager with the exhibit.

St-Amand is looking for descendants of people who travelled on the vessel. In Moose Jaw the exhibit turned up a few people with stories to share.

"I had a lot of people coming to me with passengers lists and tickets, like boarding tickets, boarding contracts that were bought in Norway in 1908," she said. "Or some of the people telling me the story that was told in their family that they were supposed to sail on the Titanic and it was full. So they did take the Empress of Ireland."

What was initially a letdown turned out to be a stroke of luck, as the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, almost two years before the Empress of Ireland sank.

The Empress of Ireland display is on at the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon until Tuesday, July 23.  Saskatoon is the final stop in Saskatchewan, before the exhibit moves on to Edmonton, Calgary, Revelstoke, Kelowna and Vancouver.

With files from CBC's Kathy Fitzpatrick