'Canada's Titanic' remembered 100 years after St. Lawrence sinking

At 1:55 a.m. this morning, 100 years to the minute after a Norwegian coal ship carved a gash into the loaded passenger liner the Empress of Ireland in the St. Lawrence River, church bells rang out in Rimouski, Que.

'Forgotten tragedy' commemoration brings together descendants of Empress of Ireland victims

The Empress of Ireland is shown in an undated photo. The Canadian Pacific steamship collided with a Norwegian coal ship near Rimouski, Que. on May 29, 1914, sinking in 14 minutes and killing 1,012 people. (Canadian Press/Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père)

At 1:55 a.m. this morning, 100 years to the minute after a Norwegian coal ship carved a gash into the loaded passenger liner the Empress of Ireland in the St. Lawrence River, church bells rang out in Rimouski, Que.

Michael Bullock, says he is the "spitting image" of his great, great uncle who died on the Empress of Ireland in 1914. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

More than 1,000 people perished early that morning in 1914, when the Empress sank to the bottom of the river.

Michael Bullock's great-great uncle, Thomas Ross, was a third-class passenger on the ship. His body was never found. 

"As far as I'm concerned, one of my close relatives is buried about 20 kilometres from here under the St. Lawrence," he said. 

Bullock, a visitor from England, is one of nearly 100 descendants of survivors and victims of the wreck who travelled to Rimouski this week to pay homage to those lost in the sinking.

"I'm here today to commemorate him and remember him 100 years on," Bullock said. "We're all finding it very emotional. To think of the trauma and the terror that these people went through. Its just an important thing to remember in history."

Canada's worst peacetime nautical disaster

The Empress of Ireland has sat in its watery grave in the St.Lawrence River since it quickly sank beneath the surface on May 29, 1914. 

But the ghosts of that nautical disaster, the worst in Canada’s history, are never far from the shores near Rimouski, where a museum was erected to preserve the memory of the event, and the tales of those on board have become ingrained in the folklore that surrounds the sinking of the ship, known as  “Canada’s Titanic.”

Though far less luxurious than the Titanic, the Empress was none the less a popular vessel. Some estimates say more than 100,000 new Canadians made the journey from Europe to their adopted homeland on its decks and the fatal voyage was the ship's 192th across the Atlantic. 

The Empress of Ireland (Alexander J. Ross / Library and Archives Canada)

The Empress departed from the port at Quebec City on May 28, 1914, with 1,477 passengers and crew headed for England.

At the time, it was considered the fastest ship travelling between the Quebec capital and Liverpool.

But the passengers on the Empress’s last voyage had barely made it to their beds on the first night when it collided with a Norwegian coal ship. Both vessels tried, but failed, to take evasive action to avoid a collision.

Just before 2 a.m., The Storstad carved a huge gash into the side of the passenger liner. It took less than 10 minutes for the Empress to capsize, 14 to sink.

With little time to respond, the Empress’s crew was only able to launch a handful of lifeboats.

Tales of survival

Rescue efforts began immediately, with boats in the vicinity rushing to the scene to pick up survivors. Only 465 people escaped. 

Three of the lucky ones were Thomas Greenaway, his brother, Herbert, and Thomas's wife, Margaret. 

Sisters Denise Reynolds, Nancy Greenaway, Laura-Jane Labate, left from right, grew up hearing the stories of their grandparents' survival in the Empress of Ireland sinking. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Thomas and Herbert were members of the Canadian Salvation Army band. More than 150 Salvationists were on the Empress that night making the voyage to England.

The granddaughters of Thomas Greenaway and his wife say their harrowing tale of survival was passed down through family lore. 

I tell you it was awful to hear the wails and moans, and the calling for God to have mercy.- Margaret Greenaway, Empress of Ireland survivor

"She was placed in the coal sheds with the dead and dying…What I recall of the story is that people didn't actually know if she was alive or dead and, hence, she ended up in the coal sheds," said granddaughter Denise Reynolds. 

Margaret detailed her terrifying account of the sinking in a letter home to her in-laws. Reynolds found the letter among her family's items and still has in her possession. 

“I tell you it was awful to hear the wails and moans, and the calling for God to have mercy,” Margaret wrote. 

Margaret (Dalzell) Greenaway's typed account of survival has been passed down through the family. (Submitted by Denise Reynolds)

"I lost my grip of [one of the band members] and just went down, down, down, the Water was filling me, and I was turning my wedding ring on my finger and thinking I had only been married a week.”

Nancy Greenaway, another granddaughter, said the effects of that day have still left a mark on the family a century later. They grew up with the stories and, as adults, can now imagine how horrifying the experience must have been. 

"I wonder about the after-effects of this tragedy on those who survived because things like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] weren't known at that time and yet that experience would definitely cause some post-traumatic problems for survivors as well as perhaps survivor guilt. 

"There were many friendships, close friendships, among them and not many survived."

'Forgotten tragedy'

The legacy of the Empress is difficult to navigate. Overshadowed by the Titanic, the sinking is referred to even by the organizers of the 100th anniversary as the "forgotten tragedy."

"The problem was that when it went down, it was big news at the time," said Bullock, who said he became interested in the sinking after seeing a picture of his relative lost in the sinking that was the "spitting image" of himself. 

"It wasn't a prestige route. It wasn't full of wealthy passengers. It was in effect a bus service between provincial cities."

Lost beneath the sentimental and sensational memories of the Titanic, the outbreak of World War I and the sinking of the Lusitania, the Empress started slipping from collective memory. 

Weeks after the disaster, Empress operator CP Railways dispatched divers to salvage $150,000 in silver bullion that sank with the ship. But, following that salvage mission, the exact location of the ship was lost until it was rediscovered 50 years later.

The ship became a salvage free-for-all for decades. All kinds of artifacts, and reportedly some human remains, were stripped from the ship by divers until the late 1990s, when the government of Quebec declared the wreck a historic site, protecting it from further pillaging.

This week, the Pointe-au-Père maritime historic site is organizing a number of events to mark the anniversary of the sinking, something some of the family members see as the last chance to ensure the memory of the ship and the tragedy aren't forgotten. 

"As an event, this is probably the last time this will happen with so many people that have got connections with the ship," Bullock said. 

"I'm a third generation who had a connection with that ship. In 20 or 30 years time, you'll lose that direct sense of relationships with people on that boat ... it falls into history and out of living memory."