While most Canadians were asleep, the 100th anniversary of Canada’s worst maritime disaster ticked by.
At 2:10 a.m. on May 29, 1914, the Empress of Ireland was steaming through a thick fog when she was struck by the collier Storstad. Fourteen minutes later, the Empress was gone, swallowed by the chilly waters of the St. Lawrence River, bringing 1,012 of the 1,477 passengers and crew with her.
Today, the Canadian Museum of History, in partnership with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, opened a new exhibit to commemorate the disaster and the important role the Empress played in Canadian history.
“The Empress of Ireland is a Canadian story involving a Canadian ship in Canadian waters,” says Mark O’Neil, president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History.
The mood of the exhibit is appropriately somber. Plates, piano legs, luggage and personal items add a tangible element to what is otherwise nearly unimaginable. But perhaps the most difficult portion is a 15-minute audio-visual dramatization of the sinking; at the end, the ship’s fog bell in the middle of the exhibit room is silent.
The Empress may not have been the most glorious of the ships that crossed the Atlantic in the years before the First World War, but it was one of the finest Canadian ships, and played an important role during the immigration boom that brought millions of immigrants to Canada in the early 20th century.
Between 1906 and 1914, the Empress made 95 transatlantic journeys and brought more than 100,000 immigrants to Canada. Now, close to one million Canadians can trace their history to the Canadian Pacific Rail’s ocean liner.
The exhibition comes from a private collection gathered by diver Mark Beaudry, who says he’s happy to be able to share it with Canadians. Protected since 1998 and declared a national historic site in 2009, the wreck of the Empress is still open to divers, but removal of artifacts is prohibited.
The exhibit runs until April 6, 2015. An adapted version of the exhibit will be shown at Pier 21 in Halifax in 2015.