Old Mill Heritage Centre finally gets to unveil its Empress of Ireland exhibit

Known as “Canada’s Titanic,” the Empress of Ireland sank in 1914 after colliding with a collier. The exhibit based on the tragedy is one of the finest ever put on by the museum.

KAGAWONG – The story of the ship that is known as Canada’s Titanic has arrived at the Old Mill Heritage Centre in Kagawong.  The Empress of Ireland, and the marine disaster that it was involved in, with 1,012 passengers and crew perishing on board is one of the featured new displays at the museum this summer. Other new displays include one on Stan Gordon Sr., long time clerk of the Township of Billings and Allan East, and a War of 1812 uniform.

“We haven’t even opened yet but we have had a lot of response to the Empress display with people indicating that they are looking forward to the opportunity of visiting to see the display (with the museum having opened the display on its first day, July 16),” said Rick Nelson, museum curator, earlier last week. 

The Empress of Ireland was a passenger ship that sank on May 29, 1914 east of Quebec City, just two years after the sinking of the Titanic. Built in 1906, the Canadian Pacific vessel was making its 96th run across the Atlantic to Liverpool when disaster struck at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. It was broadsided by another vessel, the Norwegian collier (coal carrier) Storstad which collided with the ocean liner while navigating thick fog in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the early hours of May 29, 1914. 

The ship foundered within 15 minutes with the loss of 1,012 people on board.

Although the ship was equipped with more than enough lifeboats for all onboard, The Empress of Ireland capsized so quickly it was nearly impossible to launch them. The ship capsized so fast passengers didn’t even have time to climb stairs while escaping out of their cabins. Apparently, the first divers to reach the sunken wreck 100 feet down saw people’s faces sticking out of portholes.

A model of the Empress of Ireland is on display.

To say the display that the Old Mill has on display of the Empress is captivating would be a huge understatement. Having this display is quite a coup for the heritage centre, one that should not be missed.

The museum has secured numerous artifacts from the Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec and many items from the private collection of Guy D’Astous, a private collector and a professional diver, who has dove the actual wreck 35 times over the years.  Mr. D’Astous arguably has the largest private collection in the world.

Stunning is the only way to describe two large pictures (8 feet by 8 feet in size) of the ship, hanging on the walls of the museum. The picture of the ship pre-disaster is impressive enough, but the picture of the ship lying forlornly at the bottom of the St. Lawrence and the lights shining on it by divers is nothing short of spectacular. 

But there are many, many more items on display, among them a large model of the ship, newspaper accounts of the disaster, portholes, a wheelbase that was used to support the steering wheel for the ship, oodles of photographs, a first edition of a book detailing the sinking of the ship, an official inquiry book into the investigation into the ship’s sinking, detailed blueprint drawings of the ship and uncorked bottles of wine and beer recovered from the wreck. A modest but respectful tribute to members of the Salvation Army is also featured. 

Dianne Fraser looks at some of the items at the Stan Gordon Sr. display at the Old Mill Heritage Museum. photo by Tom Sasvari

A Canadian contingent of the Salvation Army was travelling on the Empress to a convention in England when the ship went down. Over 150 people from that group perished. There is a shoe from one of the passengers or crew on the ship, and among the many other items as part of the display is a stunning video simulation of the ship sinking, in real time of 15 minutes. It is definitely something you need to see at least once. It is something you will never forget.

The entire collection is outstanding.

If that isn’t enough, there is the War of 1812 uniform on display at the heritage centre, on loan to the museum by Tim Gallagher. 

The first main display visitors to the heritage centre will come in contact when entering the main part of the museum is the new display featuring Stanley Gordon Sr., Billings-Allan East township clerk for 38 years (1938-1976). Dianne Fraser of the Old Mill Heritage Centre board explained to The Expositor, “the (Gordon) family had donated a desk that Stan Gordon Sr. had used, and we decided after that to make this part of a display of Mr. Gordon, as he was clerk of the township for 38 years. We’re quite proud of it.”

Ms. Fraser pointed out one of Stan Gordon Sr.’s jobs as a township clerk was to register all births, marriages and deaths in the township.

The display, “includes a motion from the township council to create Gordon Drive in Kagawong in memory of Stan Gordon Sr.,” said Ms. Fraser. “He worked from home until the township office was first built.”

Stanley Gordon Sr. was born December 23, 1906. He received his education at Kagawong and Gore Bay, and farmed at Maple Point and Kagawong.

Mr. Gordon served as clerk of the municipality for 38 years, replacing T.J.  Thompson at a salary of $60 a year.

Prior to a township office being established, Mr. Gordon worked from home. For  a portion of his tenure, he was also treasurer. Recording motions from meetings, responding to correspondence, issuing pay vouchers, recording township marriages, births and deaths were some of the responsibilities of the township clerk.

At a retirement party for Mr. Gordon in 1976, Austin Hunt, reeve of Billings at the time read a letter from the treasurer of Ontario Darcy McKeough congratulating the retiring clerk on his years of service in the village. 

Photos and information from the retirement party, along with the congratulatory letters from Mr. McKeough and a letter from Maurice Foster, MP for the riding, are also included in the collection

There are also numerous other letters, photographs, and other memorabilia from the family collection on display for one of the most prominent men in the township’s history.

Other exhibits on display at the museum is the history of Harbour Island and the Daniel Dodge exhibits.