Thea Devine finding, yet again, something else she wished she’d asked questions about when she had the chance.
Not quite a hundred years ago, May 29, 1914, the passenger ship Empress of Ireland left Quebec for its usual routine voyage via the St. Lawrence River to Liverpool, England. This was a strongly built vessel, with steel walls dividing its eleven sections, and life saving gear and enough lifeboat space and life jackets for 1500 plus passengers.. Doors were water tight. The crew was trained in emergency measures. And the ship had the capacity to float even if some of its compartments were flooded. There were 1447 passengers and crew on board this voyage.
Shortly after the trip commenced, another ship, a coal carrier, was sighted some eight miles away. Evasive maneuvers were made but an unexpected fog rose up blinding visibility, and the coal carrier crashed into the Empress. Instantly, she listed to the starboard side as those who could scrambled to safety. Only, because of how quickly she rolled over, there were barely five or six lifeboats that could even be reached. Water gushed in through portholes and water tight doors that were illegally open to air out the cramped lower deck cabins. People drowned in their sleep. 1,012 died that night, 465 survived. The ship sank completely in 14 minutes
Arguably this was a greater disaster than the Titanic. More lives were lost. The ship went down faster. Each ships’ crew blamed the other. An inquiry was ordered which took place in July of that year. After which an American-Canadian salvage crew was hired, led by one William Wotherspoon, to try to retrieve bodies, mail, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of silver bullion.
According to a very badly copied newspaper article, very few bodies were recovered — it was said elsewhere, about 300, but the mail and bullion were pulled from the wreck after the divers “exploded” the port side to gain access to the purser’s safe.
One of those divers, named in the article, was my husband’s grandfather, who indeed, was a deep sea diver in his day, and, according to his full-page New York Times obit,, had also done salvage work during WWI and later on the Holland Tunnel. He died in a diving accident.
By the time this all caught my interest, my father-in-law was gone, and all his brothers and sisters. So I went on a Google hunt to find my grandfather-in-law through articles about the Empress of Ireland in the NY Times and Herald Tribune. When there was a mention of the wreck and the salvage operation, the details were sparse, and no individuals were named. The results of inquiry, which held the Empress’s captain responsible, have been long disputed.
And too, by August 1914, war was on the horizon. Nobody much cared about what happened to the Empress or why. The Titanic story was sexier anyway — women and children pushing into lifeboats to be saved first, bands playing, noble husbands and devastated lovers, famous people lost like John Jacob Astor, a slow slide to oblivion in a vast ocean. And there was that iceberg.
But the Empress wasn’t wholly eclipsed by the Titanic — divers now regularly go down to the wreck which rests in the St. Lawrence River and there have been documentaries about her, books based on the facts of the disaster, novels, and survivors’ families’ webpages.
I haven’t yet found another reference to my grandfather-in-law in the meager details I’ve read on-line about the wreck. But I know he was there — we have in our possession a letter of recommendation for him signed by William Wotherspoon, the head of the Empress of Ireland salvage team.
What about you? Anyone fascinated by the Titanic? Any brush with history in your family tree? Any genealogical hunt that turned up something amazing?