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Empress of Ireland Disaster

On this date in 1914 Canada experienced its worst maritime disaster during peacetime. Just two years after the Titanic went down, the Empress of Ireland collided with a fully loaded cargo ship in the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The Empress had left Quebec City just 12 hours earlier. She was bound for Liverpool with nearly 1500 people on board. Among the passengers was Miss Jennie Newton, of Antler, ND, who was on her way to visit British relatives.

After everyone had settled into their berths for the night, Captain Henry Kendall spotted a ship a few miles to starboard, coming in from Nova Scotia. Kendall believed the ship was signaling green – meaning it intended to pass to starboard. Unfortunately, a dense layer of fog obscured the view, so Kendall gave three short blasts to indicate he was reversing. Then, he gave two more blasts to inform the oncoming ship that the Empress had stopped.

Suddenly, the freighter emerged from the fog. It was heading straight for the Empress. Captain Kendall quickly ordered an evasive maneuver, but it was too late. The steel-tipped hull of the oncoming ship sliced into the side of the Empress.

Water gushed into the 250? gash. Survivor George Attwell later wrote, “When it is remembered that all lights went out shortly after the collision, and the giant ship had turned over on her side, it will be realized how utterly hopeless it was for most of the passengers to do anything for themselves.”

When the cold water hit the boilers, they exploded, and fourteen minutes after being struck, the Empress keeled over with only five lifeboats launched. By the time help arrived, the Empress had lost more passengers than the Titanic. The crew of the freighter saved several hundred, but when morning broke, the numbers were crushing: 1,012 dead, and only 465 saved. The results became controversial when it was learned the number of men who survived far outweighed the number of women and children – in fact, only 4 of the 138 children were saved. In stark contrast, more than half the survivors were crewmembers. A familiar quote among all was, “There wasn’t time.”

Back in Antler, the news was that Miss Jennie Newton was among the survivors, but sadly it wasn’t true. Jennie was one of the dead who were recovered and identified. It was the world’s second worst maritime disaster during peacetime.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm



Hansboro News, June 15, 1914

Marion Kelch, “The Collision Between the S/S Empress of Ireland and the S/S Storstad,” Feb 2005, (http://www.empressartifacts.org)


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