Billings receives Empress of Ireland exhibit funding, exhibit postponed

Canada’s Titanic the Empress of Ireland will form the basis for next year’s exhibit.

KAGAWONG – The community of Billings Township and the Old Mill Heritage Centre received some very good news recently.

“We received a letter from Rick Nelson (curator of the Old Mill Heritage Centre) which provided the good news that they have secured a heritage grant to have a display of artifacts of the Empress of Ireland,” stated Billings Mayor Ian Anderson at a council meeting last week. The Empress of Ireland is known as Canada’s Titanic.

Mr. Nelson, in a letter to council dated May 12, wrote, “it is with great excitement that I can formally announce that we have secured a $15,000 heritage grant to transfer and display artifacts of the Empress of Ireland. Just a reminder, this was a passenger ship about the same size as the Titanic. It sank two years later in 1914 in the St. Lawrence River east of Quebec City. It was broadsided by another vessel at night in heavy fog and sank in 14 minutes with the loss of over 1,000 lives.”

“As you know, we acquired permission from the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec for the rights to host this major shipwreck exhibit at the Old Mill Heritage Centre,” wrote Mr. Nelson. “That is now possible with the acquisition of this grant. However, due to COVID-19 we have been forced to delay the exhibit until the 2021 season. The good news is this will give us more time to prepare.” 

The RMS Empress of Ireland was an ocean liner that sank near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River after being rammed broadside in thick fog by the Norwegian cargo vessel SS Storstad in the early hours of May 29, 1914. Although the ship was equipped with more than enough lifeboats for all onboard, she foundered in only 14 minutes. Of the 1,477 people on board, 1,012 died, making it the worst peacetime marine disaster in Canadian history.

Empress of Ireland was built by Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering in Scotland and commissioned by Canadian Pacific Steamships for the North Atlantic route between Liverpool and Quebec City. She first entered service in 1906 and was on her 96th voyage at the time of the sinking.

The wreck lies in 40 metres (130 feet) of water, making it accessible to advanced divers. Many artifacts from the wreckage have been retrieved.

“On behalf of the museum committee I wanted to thank everyone at the municipality. Kathy (McDonald, Billings Clerk) was most helpful in securing the grant money and it is very much appreciated. Thanks again for your support with this project,” wrote Mr. Nelson.