An exhibition developed by the Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau, in partnership with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Halifax.
On the foggy night of May 29, 1914, two ships collide in the St. Lawrence River. The Empress of Ireland, with 1,477 souls aboard, sinks in less than 15 minutes. An estimated 1,032 people — passengers and crew — perish.
Step aboard this once-splendid ocean liner and travel back in time to a pivotal period in Canadian history, when economic activity was booming, and when the Empress of Ireland and her sister ship, the Empress of Britain, brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants to our shores.
Experience the atmosphere of celebration following the ship’s from the docks of the City of Québec, the confused encounter in the fog, the fateful collision with the collier and the desperate rush to escape the sinking vessel. Artifacts like the ship’s bell and compass, and eyewitness accounts like the memoir of an eight-year-old survivor, help bring to life stories of loss and rescue, despair and bravery, that were all part of the greatest maritime disaster in Canadian history.
Get to know some of the passengers
Passengers from various cultures and social classes came from across Canada and the United States to board the Empress of Ireland on May 28, 1914. They had many reasons for travelling. Their lives and those of the crew would be forever changed by the disaster.
Travelling with her parents Edward and Edith
Place of residence: Toronto
Purpose of trip: As an eight-year-old girl, she was happy to be going on a trip with her parents, who were travelling to London to take part in the Salvation Army’s International Congress.
Grace Hanagan: Survived
Edith Hanagan: Perished
Edward Hanagan: Perished
Eight-year-old Grace lost sight of her parents after falling into the water. During the year that followed the tragedy, she continued to hope that her mother might still be alive, given that her body was not found.
View an excerpt from Grace Hannigan’s moving firsthand account of the sinking of the Empress.
Grace Hanagan, with the permission of The Salvation Army Archives, Canada and Bermuda Territory
Travelling with his wife Susanna
Place of residence: Ottawa
Purpose of trip: The couple celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary on the day of departure. They were taking a trip to Europe for the occasion.
Edward Seybold: Survived
Susanna Seybold: Perished
Edward followed the casket of his wife to Bonaventure station in Montréal on May 31.
© Library and Archives Canada, Topley Studio / e010973043 / e010973044
Travelling with his wife Carolina and their son Rino
Place of residence: Fayal Camp, Minnesota
Purpose of trip: The Bragas were going to visit family in Italy during a series of major strikes in the U.S. mining sector.
Egildo Braga: Survived
Carolina Braga: Survived
Rino Braga (son): Perished
Egildo tried to save his family. He tied his son to his body and threw himself into the water with his wife. The force of the waves tore Rino from his father. Egildo searched desperately for his son in the dark, but in vain.
This photograph, taken in Northern Minnesota, shows Elgido Braga, his wife Carolina and their son Rino (in her arms). They appear in the upper row, between the guitar player and the accordionist. Within two months, they would board the Empress of Ireland for a trip home to Italy.
Wedding Photograph of Carlo and Giusseppa Braga, March 1914, Courtesy of Ernesto Milani
Did you know…
- En route from Québec City to Liverpool, the ship collided with the Norwegian coal ship Storstad and sank on the morning of May 29, 1914 at 2:10 a.m. This was the Empress’s 96th trans-Atlantic voyage.
- Only 15 minutes elapsed between the moment of impact and the sinking of the Empress of Ireland
- Of the 1,477 people aboard, 1,012 died. Only five of the 138 children survived.
- Among the passengers, 171 members of the Salvation Army were en route to London for a World Congress. One hundred and fifty members would lose their lives while approximately 30 survived the tragedy.
- On April 15, 1999, Québec’s Ministère de la Culture et des Communications classified the wreck as a “historical and archaeological property.”
- In 42 metres of water and six kilometres from Sainte-Luce-sur-Mer, lying on its starboard side, the Empress of Ireland keeps many of its secrets.
- This remains the greatest maritime disaster in the history of Canada.