Nova Scotia

Empress of Ireland ship sinking exhibit opens at Pier 21

An exhibit honouring the Empress of Ireland, regarded as Canada's equivalent to the Titanic, opened at Pier 21 on Monday and will be there for a year.

The Empress of Ireland sank the ship sank 'in a terrifying 15 minutes.' More than 1,000 people died

On May 29, 1914 The Canadian Pacific steamship, the Empress of Ireland, collided with a Norwegian freighter near Rimouski, Quebec and sank in about 15 minutes. (The Canadian Press)

An exhibit honouring the Empress of Ireland, regarded as Canada's equivalent to the Titanic, opened at Pier 21 on Monday and will be there for a year.

The Empress of Ireland was sailing from Quebec City to Liverpool, England, in the early hours of May 29, 1914 and was heading to Europe. Nearing Rimouski, the vessel's crews could see the lights from another ship, the Storstadt, which was a ship full of Nova Scotia coal heading to Montreal.

Passengers aboard the Empress of Ireland. The ship sank in the St. Lawrence in 1914. (Site Historique Maritime de la Pointe au Pere)

"The two ships lost track of each other in the fog, kind of miscalculated what the other was doing and then suddenly out of the mist, the bow of the coal ship Storstadt ripped into the centre of the Empress of Ireland — just tore the side out by the engine room and the ship sank in a terrifying 15 minutes," Dan Conlin, the curator at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, told CBC's Information Morning.

About 1,500 people were on the vessel and more than 1,000 people died. More than a dozen of them were Nova Scotians.

Given the time of the sinking, 2:10 a.m., most people were in their cabins sleeping and had little chance of getting out safely, said Conlin.

To this day, it remains Canada's biggest Maritime disaster.

"It really was Canada's Titanic," said Conlin.

In its day, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland was big news.

"It made world headlines at the time," said Conlin.

However, two months after the sinking, the First World War broke out. That, coupled with the fact there weren't celebrities aboard — like that of the Titanic — the Empress of Ireland faded from the headlines.

"That didn't give it the depth of pop culture resonance," said Conlin.

Remarkable porthole escape

With the new exhibit, Conlin hopes it allows people to rediscover the Empress of Ireland's story and its important contribution to immigration in Canada. The vessel brought about 100,000 immigrants to Canada before it sank.

This bell is more than 100 years old and was recovered from the bottom of the St. Lawrence River. (@Pier21/Twitter)

The exhibit includes historical documents, eyewitness accounts and 81 artifacts from the liner. One of those artifacts is a pair of pajamas worn by passenger John Langley, who survived the sinking in remarkable fashion.

Langley had immigrated to Canada one year earlier from Ireland, but was on the vessel to settle some affairs at home. After the collision, Langley jumped out of his bunk and went into a corridor, but the door was locked.

"He saw this 14-inch porthole and he squeezed himself through this porthole with this pajamas and then managed to swim to an overturned lifeboat," said Conlin.

Langley kept the pajamas and they remained in his family's possession, but were donated to the museum about six months ago.

The exhibit runs in Halifax until Nov. 13, 2016.


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