The wreck of the Empress of Ireland was the worst maritime tragedy in Canadian history. The Empress of Ireland had been part of the Canadian Pacific fleet since 1906 and had been designed to provide a fast six-day transatlantic link between Liverpool, England, and Québec. In addition to the passengers it transported from one continent to the other, the Empress also had mail on board.

At 4:30 p.m. on 28 May 1914, the Empress of Ireland set out from the port of Québec carrying 1477 persons, including 420 crew, as well as 1100 tonnes of general cargo and many bags of mail. On the first night of the voyage, 29 May, at 1:40 a.m., the watch reported a ship ascending the river about eight miles away. It was a Norwegian vessel, the Storstad, whose own watch reported the presence of the Empress at the same time. Moments later, the Empress entered a thick veil of fog. Having lost sight of the Storstad, Captain Henry George Kendall ordered a halt as a precautionary measure. The Norwegian second officer, Alfred Toftenes, who had been left in command of the ship, slowly continued on his course after also ordering the engines cut. Having no idea of the position of the Empress, he sent for Captain Thomas Anderson. But it was already too late. By the time Anderson spotted the Empress, a collision could not be avoided. At 1:45 a.m. the Storstad rammed the side of the Empress. The damage was beyond repair. The Empress sank off Pointe-au-Père in less than 14 minutes. The loss of human life was staggering: 1012 persons out of 1477 passengers. The deadly tragedy was reminiscent of the loss of the Titanic two years earlier, which had claimed 1500 victims.
In material terms, the Empress was carrying various valuables, including 252 silver ingots of an estimated value of close to $2 million, plus numerous bags of mail. With the assistance of plans of the ship, divers managed to locate the mailroom and recovered 61 bags. The letters were carefully dried out and forwarded to the dead letter office in Ottawa. The special postmark "Recovered by divers from wreck of S.S. Empress of Ireland " was affixed to the letters, which were returned to their senders or to their European recipients when the return address was illegible.

World War I broke out a little over a month after the tragedy, and the wreck of the Empress was quickly forgotten. It was not until 1964 that divers relocated the wreck. In 1998, the government of Quebec protected the site of the shipwreck of the Empress,  making it the first underwater site to be incorporated in the province’s historical heritage network. On 3 June 2000, the Musée marine de Pointe-au-Père began construction of the new Empress of Ireland pavilion, which houses an exhibition hall where a multimedia show recreates this tragic event.

Stéphanie Ouellet

Sources

Horrall, Andrew. "Empress of Ireland," Canadian Postal Museum research paper.