Empress of Ireland considered to be Canada’s Titanic

KAGAWONG – The community of Billings Township and the Old Mill Heritage Centre welcomed the first installment of shipwreck artifacts this week from the Canadian Museum of History. The collection comes from the ship considered by many to be “Canada’s Titanic.”

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 in the middle of the night in heavy fog and foundered within 15 minutes, with the loss of more than 1,000 lives.

Although the ship was equipped with more than enough lifeboats for all onboard, she capsized so quickly it was nearly impossible to launch them. The ship capsized so fast passengers didn’t even have the capability 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. 

Rick Nelson, curator of the museum, told the Recorder, “negotiations began about three years ago to acquire the selected artifacts.” The Empress collection has been in storage in Gatineau, Quebec for several years now. 

“We would have had the display last year, but COVID-19 complicated that,” said Mr. Nelson. “This year, COVID-19 permitting, we’re making another attempt. We couldn’t wait another year; this was our last opportunity.” 

To help get the project off the ground this year, the Museum of History waived all fees and expenses while Heritage Canada approved funding to help cover the cost of transporting the items. Manitoulin Transport jumped in to help cover other miscellaneous expenses and the rest will come from private donations, explained Mr. Nelson.  

One item besides the artifacts the heritage museum will be able to display is the model of the ship. “I’m really keen about the model because of its size and it could very well be the centrepiece of the exhibition,” said Mr. Nelson. 

All the other artifacts will be around the model, along with two huge pictures (8 feet by 8 feet) of the ship, hanging from the rafters. Actual artifacts include portholes and a wheelbase that was used to support the steering wheel for the ship. A modest but respectful tribute to members of the Salvation Army will also be featured. A Canadian contingent was travelling on the Empress to a convention in England when the ship went down. Over 150 people from that group perished.

There’s not a lot of time for the Kagawong museum crew to catch their breath. A second truckload of artifacts will be arriving in a few days, this one from Montreal. 

A private collector is transporting his personal Empress artifacts to the Island, said Mr. Nelson.  Guy D’Astous is a professional diver, having dove the actual wreck 35 times over the years. While he never kept anything from the ship during those dives, Mr. D’Astous started collecting Empress artifacts independently and now arguably has the largest private collection in the world.  “He’s eager to donate the items to the museum for the season,” said Mr. Nelson.  Between the two collections, the Kagawong museum committee is expecting a healthy inventory of artifacts and memorabilia, including an uncorked bottle of wine recovered from the wreck.

Mr. Nelson explained, “our museum has always explored maritime history and highlighted the lighthouses of Manitoulin Island. Over the years we’ve done presentations on the local shipwreck Northwind and told the story of the lost ship Griffon along with the discovery of the ships of the Franklin Expedition.  “So, telling the story of the Empress of Ireland is a natural extension of what we’ve done in the past. It’s interesting that a lot of people have not heard the story of the Empress,” said Mr. Nelson. “We’re looking forward to telling it at the museum.” He added that the museum will be abiding by COVID-19 guidelines, same as last season.  

For further updates on the Empress of Ireland exhibit, visit kagawongmuseum.com where donations are accepted, or go on Facebook and find Old Mill Heritage Centre.