The Empress of Ireland: "Canada\’s Titanic"

I recently came across the author Steve Robinson. He writes a series of books that are \”genealogical murder mysteries\”. I have to tell you, I have tore through the first four of his books in less than two months. There are five total, with a new one coming out in May. His fourth book, The Lost Empress, centers around whether a passenger who was believed to have died in the sinking of the HMS Empress of Ireland actually survived. Though I had heard of the name of the ship in passing, I did not know any of the actual details. After reading his book, I just had to find out more.


The sinking of the HMS Empress of Ireland on 29 May 1914 was one of Canada\’s worst maritime disasters. Over 1,000 people died when the ship sank in the St.Lawrence River. It took less than 15 minutes for the ship to sink. Sandwiched between the sinking of the HMS Titanic two years earlier and the infamous sinking of the HMS Lusitania in 1915, most people have never heard of it.

The ship was owned by Canadian Pacific Steamships, and was a major part of the immigration of Canada. Launched in 1906, she made  95 trips back and forth between Liverpool and Quebec City. Estimates go from 1 in 35 to 1 in 60 Canadians that can trace their immigrant ancestor to the ship. In total, around 120,00 Europeans made the trip to Canada on her. In my researching of family lines, I found my in-laws\’ ancestors had sailed on her sister ship the HMS Empress of Britain. Built in Scotland, the Empress of Ireland could carry 1542 passengers and 373 crew.

It was on the 96th voyage on a foggy night in May 1914 that she sank. On the way to Liverpool, the Empress was going out to sea down the Saint Lawrence River. Coming the opposite direction was the Norwegian collier Storstad. Both ships had seen each other before the fog settled in, but soon they were relying on whistle blasts to find each other\’s location. It\’s unsure who and where the errors in navigation were, but the Norwegian ship drove directly into the side of the Empress. Of the 1,477 on board, only 465 people survived. Sadly, only 4 of  the 138 children aboard ship were among the survivors. Also among the passengers were 170 members of the Salvation Army, on their way to a rally in England. The organization lost 141 of the 170.

Unlike the Titanic, the Empress of Ireland only sits 130 feet under water. Because of the extreme cold of the water, it is remarkably well preserved. It lies just off the coast of Rimouski, Quebec. However, strong currents makes this a dive site for only experienced divers. Around half a dozen people have lost their lives diving the wreck. Because of the damage done by wreck scavengers, both the government of  Quebec and the federal government have declared it a historic site to prevent further damage.

In 2014 Canada Post released two stamps to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking. There are several memorials in Quebec to it. The Salvation erected it\’s own memorial in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, as a tribute to its lost members. The Royal Canadian Mint also issued a commemorative coin.

You can find out more about the HMS Empress of Ireland and her final resting place at the following sites:


National Film Board

Historica Canada

Globe and Mail


Pier 21

If you\’re interested in Steve Robinson and his books his website is here.

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