My Personal “Titanic”

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?

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10 thoughts on “My Personal “Titanic””

  1. Isn’t it just incredible that there is so much publicity, even today, for the Titanic, and yet I have never heard of the Empress. I wonder how many other large passenger vessels have gone down with virtually no recognition?

    I happen to live just outside Southampton, from where Titanic sailed, and over the last few weeks there have been several tv and radio programmes about what happened 100 years ago. We even have a Titanic exhibition in Southampton.

    I wonder if the type of passengers that survived, or died, played a part in this? I gather that many extremely rich people were on the Titanic, and maybe that is why the papers were full of the tragedy at the time. A little like the gossip mags of today who inform the public about even the most inconsequential matters if they happen to people in the public eye.

    I do hope that you manage to find out more about your grandfather-in-law. Truly fascinating.

    1. It’s true — there weren’t many celebrities on board the Empress; but I really think it was the rumblings of war that pushed it off the front pages. I surely intend to keep searching for info on my grandfather-in-law’s part in the salvage operation. I just wished I had spoken my father-in-law about all of this when I could have. Maybe that’s lesson for all writers — don’t let the minutae pass you by.

      thea

  2. I have heard of the Empress of Ireland. It’s very tragic how quickly it sank despite all the safety measures. I’m fascinated by shipwrecks. My last Friday’s post – There is That Leviathan – also touched on the human element of the Titanic’s sinking. I first learned about the Empress in a book called Lost Liners (Robert Ballard, Rick Archbold, Ken Marschall). There is some good information in there and excellent artwork.

    Another forgotten shipwreck – the Sultana – is usually recognized as the worst maritime disaster. The Sultana sank in April 1865, right after the end of the Civil War. It was carrying prisoners of war when the boiler exploded taking anywhere between 1800 and 2400 lives (depending on which account you read). I don’t know how many people realize that Titanic’s sister ship – Britannic – sank during WWI after hitting a mine. The Britannic served as a hospital ship and never carried commerical passengers.

    On a more personal note, in 1956, my mother was visiting relatives in the Boston area. She was listening to a cousin’s ship to shore radio when The Andrea Dorea (another multi-ship collision) was struck. They sat riveted for hours listening to the drama unfold – the call for help, the rescue of passengers and the ship’s ultimate sinking.

    Now that I think about it, hearing that story growing up – maybe that is where my obsession with shipwrecks started.

  3. Awesome and heartwrenching story, Thea. Thanks for bringing it to light. I’d never even heard of the Empress before.

  4. I had also heard of the Empress of Ireland. Thea, but had not remembered it till this post. I’m fascinated by your personal connection to this tragedy, and I wish you luck in the hunt for more information (that’s part of the fun, as you know!). Will there be a romance written about it? Hint! Hint! I’ve mentioned before that nobody on either side of my family emigrated to Canada/U.S. after 1830, so I have a lot of genealogical information easily available to me. Here is one of my favorite tidbits: on my mother’s side, I have a cousin who was very famous in his day. Isaac Van Amburgh (in the next generation the name was changed to Van Amber) had a traveling menagerie/circus, and was a celebrated lion tamer, generally credited with being the first person to put his head in a lion’s mouth. He worked in England for several years, and was enough of a favorite with Queen Victoria that she had a painting commissioned depicting him. (History nerds — look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_A._Van_Amburgh). He was also widely criticized for his cruelty to his animals 😦 Great post, Thea!

  5. Thea, thank you for enlightening me. It is curious that the Titanic has had more publicity than any other. Tradegy is tradegy in any language. Pirates have had their field day, have they not? Great Post.

  6. It’s amazing how thin the thread is sometimes. My father was in the Navy at Pearl Harbor and because of a family emergency was granted leave the day before the bombing. Amazing how if things had gone differently, I would not be here (and neither would your husband’s father) … ah but for the greater plan of God.

    1. And there were five other siblings besides, Gerri. I picture grandfather-in-law as a devil-may-care adventurer. But we didn’t know until recently of his connection to the Empress disaster. Has your father ever talked about his time in Pearl Harbor? Or maybe it’s best that we create our own history of those events to satisfies the divide between reality and imagination. Invariably, we come that close to the truth..

      thea

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