History Night in Kagawong captivates with tale of ‘Canada’s Titanic’

Old Mill Heritage Centre Rick Nelson, left, looks on as author David Saint-Pierre and Salvation Army archivist Major Ron Miller take questions from the audience. TVO journalist Steve Paikin stood service as faciliatator for the Q and A session.

Salvation Army Staff Band adds atmosphere with period music

KAGAWONG—History Night in Kagawong has become synonymous with top shelf historical seminars, mostly focused on maritime history (which makes a lot of sense given that the Old Mill Heritage Centre museum tends to focus a fair bit of attention on maritime events). The story of the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland proved a true case in point.

The sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland is often referred to as “Canada’s Titanic,” noted Old Mill Heritage Centre curator Rick Nelson in his opening remarks, but despite being this nation’s worst peacetime maritime disaster, the vast majority of Canadians have never heard of the catastrophe. “By the time this evening is over, you folks will know more about the Empress of Ireland than the rest of Canada put together,” he promised. The presentations provided by the evening’s two presenters proved him as good as his word.

Despite the immense amount of information and historical anecdotes contained in those talks, the audience remained rapt in attention thanks to the storytelling skill demonstrated by the two presenters.

One attendee related to The Expositor that a “fidgety” grandchild at the beginning of the talk settled almost immediately as the presenters began their talks and remained attentive until the very end.

The first presenter was Montreal author and historian David Saint-Pierre (originally from Rimouski, QC, a community that had, and continues to have, huge connections with the disaster) and who is the author of a new book about the Empress disaster.

The second presenter was Salvation Army archivist Major Ron Millar, who provided intimate anecdotes illuminating the impact the loss of a large group of Salvation Army senior officials who were travelling to a conference aboard the vessel and the staff band, almost all of whom “went down with the ship.” The ripples of those impacts have reverberated onto the present day and the Salvation Army continues to honour those lost in ceremonies held at a monument to this day.

Mr. Saint-Pierre noted that while the story of the RMS Empress of Ireland has largely faded from the nation’s memory, it remains very much alive in the memory of his hometown of Rimouski. His book, ‘L’Empress of Ireland: une histoire par l’image,’ is currently only available in French, but is in the process of being translated into English.

He noted that the story of the RMS Empress of Ireland is “too often limited to the story of its tragic end.” Pointing out that the vessel was in active service for eight years before coming to becoming Canada’s largest peacetime maritime disaster. Its designation of “RMS” instead of the more common “HMS” was due to it being a Royal Mail Ship, charged with delivering the critical postal communications which, in those days preceding widespread telephones use or digital communication, provided the main link between businesses, governments and families.

“During these years, the Empress of Ireland and its twin Empress of Britain made the connection between Quebec and Liverpool and became the darlings of Quebec,” he said. “Everywhere on the shores of the St. Lawrence, the ship acquired an excellent reputation and testimonies in the press at the time abound, describing the immense crowds that gathered on the quays to see them pass.”

The shock to the nation, and the world, when on the night of May 28 to 29, 1914, the Empress of Ireland, enroute to Liverpool, was hit by the Norwegian ship Storstad just below Rimouski in dense fog was immense.

The accident, in dense fog that was not expected, saw the Empress of Ireland sink beneath the waves in less than 15 minutes. So fast, in fact, that 1,012 people were unable to escape and lost their lives. The Storstad had cut deep into the Empress and when it reversed the water rushed in causing the Empress to heel over, while the ship’s electricity was cut causing the interior to be plunged into darkness, making it nearly impossible for anyone below decks to escape.

The author delivered two explanations for the collision as both the Empress and the Storstad held to differing accounts. In the days before universal radios were to be found onboard ships and with dense fog enveloping the channel, signals were made by the sounding of horns and the positioning of red and green lights.

Mr. Saint-Pierre offered a suggestion on how the positioning of the lights may have led to confusion as to which way the ships were turning and the sounding of horns appears to have been misheard.

The Storstad had backed its engines to try and minimize the collision that caused the ship to pull out of the cut it had made in the Empress. The Storstad continued to pull away believing the Empress would remain afloat. It was about a mile away before realizing the ship was sinking. It then returned to pick up survivors. Most of the 465 survivors of the tragedy were picked up by the Storstad, who transported them to Rimouski.

Mr. Saint-Pierre spoke on how the entire community, a very small town at the time, mobilized to come to the aide of the survivors.

“From then on and forever, the name Empress of Ireland will be associated with that of Rimouski,” he said.

Major Millar took the audience into a different direction, focussing on the emotional impact the tragedy had on the Salvation Army, still a nascent organization at the time, having been established in Canada in 1885, a mere 15 years after Confederation.

The Salvation Army was founded in London, England in 1865. William Booth, a minister, had abandoned the conventional concept of a church and a pulpit to take a “message of hope to the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the destitute.” By 1867, the Salvation Army had developed into a ministry offering basic schooling, reading rooms, penny banks, soup kitchens and relief aid to the destitute and spread to many nations across the globe.

“On board were 167 Salvationists, bound for an international congress in London,” he shared. “Most, including the national commander and members of the Canadian Staff Band, were drowned,” said Major Millar. He went on to point out that the loss was so traumatic that the Canadian Staff Band was not re-formed until 1969.

“Although the tragedy impacted the whole country, the Salvation Army bore the brunt of the blow,” he asserted. “Losing almost 150 of its members, including most of its senior leaders and 29 members of the 41-piece Staff Band. All the Salvationist passengers were making their way to London, England for an International Congress under the esteemed leadership of General Bramwell Booth.”

“The tragedy has never been far from the minds of members and friends of The Salvation Army and a monument was built by The Salvation Army at Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery,” said Major Millar. “Each year since 1916, Salvationists have gathered at the memorial to remember those whose lives were lost or forever changed in Canada’s worst maritime disaster.”

“The tragedy was not just one tragedy,” he said, noting that the losses from the sinking rippled out to impact thousands of family members and Salvation Army members.

Compounding the loss was the poor communications at the time, at one point rumours had all surviving, while other rumours had all lost.

When a memorial parade was held in Toronto over 100,000 people lined the streets as it passed. A service held in a Montreal arena was filled to capacity, with over 7,000 attending.

Photos shown of the band members during the presentation depict them wearing Mountie-style hats. A result of a donation of surplus RCMP headgear to the Salvation Army.

Two poignant video presentations by descendants of those lost in the tragedy added an emotional impact on a personal level.

Following the presentations in the evening session, TVO ‘The Agenda’ host Steve Paikin moderated a short question and answer session.

Accompanying the presentations were displays of artifacts and lighted standards with stories from the Salvation Army.

Both presenters were effusive in their praise of Mr. Nelson for bringing the story of the Empress of Ireland back to life, but for his part, Mr. Nelson was quick to deflect much of the credit to Billings’ museum committee members and his staff, which includes Hanako Hubbard-Radulovich. “This has been an amazing experience,” said Ms. Hubbard-Radulovich of her time at the Old Mill Heritage Centre as she manned the merch table during the evening presentations. Museum Committee members cited by Mr. Nelson include chairs Michael Hunt, Dianne Fraser, Barb Edwards, Brad MacKay, Wes Newburn, Diana Larocque and Deborah Flaxman.

The Old Mill Heritage Centre in Kagawong currently has an exhibit featuring hundreds of artifacts from the shipwreck.