By Citizen Journalist, Ed Johnson
Grace Hanagan was only eight years old when her parents took her on a trip of a lifetime: an overseas voyage aboard a Canadian Pacific luxury cruise line vessel from Canada to Liverpool.
Her family was traveling as part of a 170 person contingent from the Canadian Salvation Army, who were to attend an international conference in London. Grace was understandably excited as she bedded down for the first night of her trip, departing from Quebec City in the mid afternoon of May 28, 1914. But at 2 a.m. something went horribly wrong. A grinding noise followed by a knock on her cabin door, alerted her family to get to the lifeboats. The 548 foot liner was in danger of sinking.
In the next fourteen minutes, the ship sank to the bottom of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Grace found herself floating in the frigid water clinging to a piece of flotsam. While she was lucky to be counted among the survivors, she never saw her parents alive again.
And so began the tragic end of the story for the RMS Empress of Ireland, which became Canada’s biggest marine disaster in the number of fatalities. So big, that in fourteen minutes, more passengers were lost then even that of the Titanic which took three hours to sink.
Of the 138 children aboard the Empress, only Grace and three boys were saved. In all, 1012 passengers and crew drowned that fateful foggy night.
Anxious family members and relatives around the world waited for word of their loved ones, but only 465 were rescued by the five lifeboats that were able to be launched before the ship listed severely.
The ship that had rammed the Empress through the heavy fog blanketing the St. Lawrence Seaway, the SS Storstad, was equipped with a bow for slicing through ice. The gash into the hull of the Empress went below the waterline. The bow “had gone between the liner’s steel ribs as smoothly as an assassin’s knife,” wrote James Croall in his novel, Fourteen Minutes: The last voyage of the Empress of Ireland.
As compelling as this story is, many Canadians have no knowledge of this event-apparently overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic and the start of World War 1. North Saanich resident Chris Klausen wants to change this. “This is Canada’s Titanic, and now, finally, Canada is going to learn about this tragedy” said Klausen.
July 14th and 15th 2012, at the Log Cabin Museum in Saanichton, Chris Klausen will be presenting the story in an inaugural event, to highlight the upcoming 100 year anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland.
On display will be his collection of over 120 artifacts which include parts of the liner brought up by divers, letters written by passengers and newspaper clippings of the day. Klausen has dedicated a great portion of his time researching this event and is always surprised by the number of Canadians unaware of this piece of history.
There have been a few books and one documentary on the subject – mostly focusing on the causes and who was at fault – however, an internet search turns up fascinating details.
The cruise liner began its life in 1906 and this final voyage was to be its 97th round trip. The ship’s resident tabby cat, who always accompanied the crew on its previous voyages, escaped down the gangplank before the last fatal departure. Efforts to return the cat to the ship failed. It is rumoured that the cat sat above pier 27 watching the ship depart – the same pier that saw the arrival of the many bodies that were recovered.
Eight year old Grace Hanagan-Martyn, became the last surviving member of the sinking vessel and lived until 1995 in St. Catharines, Ontario. She is interviewed in a documentary by The Fifth Estate broadcast in 1986.
Chris Klausen intends to gather more artifacts from other collectors and begin a traveling cross country exhibit in 2014 to honour the 100th anniversary of the sinking of The RMS Empress of Ireland. “It is such an important part of Canada as there are over 500,000 descendants of passengers who arrived on the Empress, most of whom settled in the west.”
“The Saanich Pioneer Society, the operators of the Log Cabin Museum, are proud to be the first to host this important piece of Canadian history…” says president Karen Hoshal.
“We are indeed fortunate to have this resource available from a local resident,” she adds.
Entrance is free to members and a small donation is requested of non-members.