Wednesday, October 1, 2014

World War Wednesdays #3

World War Wednesdays: The Empress of Ireland
     When people think of major disasters in the last century, Titanic is one that is at the forefront of their memories. Over a hundred years later, it is amazing to think that people still know or even care about such a faraway event. This is of course due in part to the cinematic adaptations which have done a good job of making the horror of that fateful night come to life. However, thanks to a recent visit to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, I learned about a similar tragedy which was much less publicized and much closer to home: The Empress of Ireland.
The Empress of Ireland
     Called Canada's Titanic, The Empress of Ireland is an equally chilling and arguably more terrible story which turns one hundred years old this year. In 1914, Canadian history was experiencing a pivotal period in which economic activity was booming, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants were arriving to be a part of this great new country. These people would travel by sea, on such a magnificent ship as The Empress of Britain or her sister, The Empress of Ireland.

     The Empress of Ireland was owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and was used to make the transatlantic journey from Quebec City to Liverpool, England. The final fateful crossing, which began May 28th, 1914, was her 96th. 1,477 people boarded that day, among them 171 members of the Salvation Army who were en route to London for  World Congress, 87 first class passengers, 253 second class passengers, 717 third class passengers, 420 crew members, and a total of 138 children.
     In order to complete its journey, the ship needed to travel down the St. Lawrence River to get to the Atlantic Ocean. It was boasted that this short portion of a couple of days contributed to the Empresses' swift reputation. It was here that the tragic events unfolded.

The Empress of Ireland Glenbow
The Empress of Ireland McCord
The Empress of Ireland Music Room



     On the foggy night of May 29th, 1914, the lack of visibility and a confused encounter resulted in a Norwegian collier called the Storstad colliding with the Empress at a 45 degree angle near her center. The captain of the collier ordered 'full ahead' to remain inside the ship, but a strong current separated the two ships and allowed water to begin flooding into the gaping hole. At 1:55 AM, just fifteen minutes after the two vessels came close enough to see each other, the Empress began listing to the starboard side. Some of the port steel lifeboats broke loose and crushed passengers, but a few still managed to make it onto the water. Just ten minutes after impact, the ship completely turned over to starboard, the two huge smokestacks hit the water and crushed a lifeboat, and many passengers were hurled into the sea. After only fourteen minutes, the Empress of Ireland sank 6km off from Saint Luce-Sur-Mer, Quebec. By comparison, the RMS Titanic took two hours and forty minutes to sink.
The speed of the sinking, combined with its considerable death toll make this the greatest maritime disaster in Canadian history. Of the 1,477 souls on board, 1,012 were lost. Only 245 crew members survived from the original 420. Third class lost 584 of its 717, second class 205 of its 253, and first class 51 of its 87. The Salvation Army group lost 150 members. Of the 138 children on board, only five remained.
     These heartbreaking numbers were not the last tragedies to befall the horrific event. One month later, the First World War broke out, and the sinking of the ship was quickly forgotten by the world  along with its victims. It wasn't until fifty years later that a group of divers discovered the wreck. Despite dangerous conditions and numerous deaths, divers have been able to retrieve a number of items from the ship. These items have since been given to the Museum from a private collector.
The ship's bell
The ship's telegraph

From May 30th, 2014 to April 6, 2015, the items are on display at the Museum as part of their main exhibit. The exhibit itself is expertly done in a re-creation of the actual ship, taking you on the journey from the excitement of boarding to the terror of the collision. I had the opportunity to visit the exhibit, which I found to be highly emotional and an incredibly eerie experience.

The exhibit sign

The exhibit entrance
Inside the ship
Baggage display

Model and artifacts
Quote from a passenger

 I also had the opportunity to attend a behind-the-scenes event where I met with the curator and conservationist who set up the exhibit. They shared with us a fascinating description of how the items were displayed, and their journey from salty ocean floor to pristine museum condition. It was fascinating to see the items up close and to learn more about them. This story is an incredibly interesting one, which I had never heard before, and I'm so thrilled to have been able to learn about it in such an interactive way.
                     Thanks for reading,
              Delany Leitch
Some examples of the dishes from the Empress' dining room. The fancier, more intricate pattern of the bottom two was designed for first class, the darker, block pattern of the upper corners was for second class, and third class received the plain white plate with the CPR logo stamped in the center.
The behind-the-scenes event, held in the museum's archival lab. The curator is the man in the grey shirt, and the conservationist is the woman in the white jacket. Notice the dishes and the wooden board with a faucet, which would have been in a passenger's cabin.

The Museum grounds, overlooking the Ottawa River and Parliament Hill

Here's where I found some supplementary information:

On the Museum's website you can see a survivor's emotional account of her experience that night. I've also included some of the personal stories which are on display at the Museum.
Egildo Braga
Travelling with his wife Carolina and their son Rino
Third class
Birthplace: Italy
Place of residence: Fayal Camp, Minnesota
Occupation: Miner
Purpose of trip: The Bragas were going to visit family in Italy during a series of major strikes in the U.S. mining sector.
Egildo Braga: Survived
Carolina Braga: Survived
Rino Braga (son): Perished
Egildo tried to save his family. He tied his son to his body and threw himself into the water with his wife. The force of the waves tore Rino from his father. Egildo searched desperately for his son in the dark, but in vain.
This photograph, taken in Northern Minnesota, shows Elgido Braga, his wife Carolina and their son Rino (in her arms). They appear in the upper row, between the guitar player and the accordionist. Within two months, they would board the Empress of Ireland for a trip home to Italy.
Wedding Photograph of Carlo and Giusseppa Braga, March 1914, Courtesy of Ernesto Milani

Grace Hanagan
Travelling with her parents Edward and Edith
Second class
Birthplace: Canada
Place of residence: Toronto
Purpose of trip: As an eight-year-old girl, she was happy to be going on a trip with her parents, who were travelling to London to take part in the Salvation Army’s International Congress.
Grace Hanagan: Survived
Edith Hanagan: Perished
Edward Hanagan: Perished

Eight-year-old Grace lost sight of her parents after falling into the water. During the year that followed the tragedy, she continued to hope that her mother might still be alive, given that her body was not found.
View an excerpt from Grace Hannigan’s moving firsthand account of the sinking of the Empress.
Grace Hanagan, with the permission of The Salvation Army Archives, Canada and Bermuda Territory

Edward Seybold

Travelling with his wife Susanna

First class

Birthplace: Canada
Place of residence: Ottawa
Occupation: Entrepreneur
Purpose of trip: The couple celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary on the day of departure. They were taking a trip to Europe for the occasion.
Edward Seybold: Survived
Susanna Seybold: Perished
Edward followed the casket of his wife to Bonaventure station in Montréal on May 31.
© Library and Archives Canada, Topley Studio / e010973043 / e010973044


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