RMS Empress of Ireland is making waves at the Museum of Civilization, where a treasure trove of artifacts from the doomed passenger ship will keep researchers busy for years. The newly acquired collection will shed light on the largest maritime disaster in Canadian history and provide fresh insight into the lives of immigrants a century ago.
The Canadian Pacific steamer collided with a Norwegian coal freighter near Rimouski, in the Lower St. Lawrence on May 29, 1914, just hours after sailing from the City of Québec en route to Liverpool. The Empress disappeared beneath the waves of the St. Lawrence within 15 minutes, taking with it at least 1,014 of the 1,477 travellers and crew on board.
“The Empress of Ireland is a window not only into a terrible historical disaster, but into a much larger human story,” said Dr. John Willis, Curator of Economic and Environmental History at the Museum. “This was a ship that ferried tens of thousands of settlers and workers to Canada during the peak period of immigration which preceded the First World War. These people—who often had no idea what challenges awaited them—arrived in the City of Québec, were processed at the immigration facilities there, then continued by rail to the Prairies, or to cities such as Montréal, Toronto Winnipeg and Vancouver.
“In 1914, Canada was still a small enough country that each new contingent of immigrants was bound to make a difference, and the Empress played a critical role by allowing unprecedented mobility between Canada and Europe. Even on its final journey, the ship carried many immigrants returning home for a visit or for good, along with tourists and businessmen from both sides of the Atlantic.”
The more than 400 artifacts, retrieved by private collector Philippe Beaudry over the course of many dives, include the ship’s fog bell, compass and other navigational instruments, portholes, furniture and personal items like a silver pocket watch.
The vast collection encompasses many more items related to the Empress, its passengers and the disaster itself. These include photographs, postcards, newspapers, books and, touchingly, a survivor’s memoir describing her harrowing rescue as an eight-year-old girl.
In addition to safeguarding the Empress legacy, the Museum is developing, in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, a special exhibition for the spring of 2014, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.