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The Collision between the S/S Empress of Ireland and the S/S Storstad

- February 2005, by Marion Kelch

This article was provided by Marion Kelch, chairperson of the Empress of Ireland Artifacts Committee. The Empress of Ireland sank in the St. Lawrence River the night of May 29, 1914, after colliding with the Norwegian collier S/S Storstad. The accident took 1012 lives of which 14 were Norwegians. The Empress of Ireland is the world's second worst sinking, in peacetime, after the Titanic until 1987 when over 3000 persons lost their lives when a ferry sank in the Philippines.

The Empress of Ireland, a Canadian Pacific Railway ocean liner, was built in the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Yards in Govan, Scotland. This luxurious CPR pride of the Atlantic set out on her maiden voyage to Canada on June 29, 1906. The Empress was 549 feet long, 66 feet wide, and had a gross tonnage of 14,191 tons, with twin propellers, and an average speed of 20 knots. The capacity was 1536 passengers: 310 in first class, 468 in 2nd class, and 758 in 3rd class. In winter she sailed between Liverpool and St. John, NB or Halifax, NS. In summer she docked in Quebec City.

S/S Empress of Ireland
Picture of the ill fated Empress of Ireland belonging of the Canadian Pacific Line
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Between 1901 and 1911, the lure of free agricultural land made Canada the fastest growing country in the world. During this time, the Minister of the Interior sent out millions of pamphlets in a dozen European languages that promoted the virtues of farming in western Canada. CPR had offices and issued tickets from many locations in all of Scandinavia including Stavanger, Trondheim, Christiania (Oslo), Gothenburg, and Helsinki. Throughout its 96 voyages, the Empress brought over to Canada a total of 117,089 passengers. Thousands of these passengers were Scandinavians who continued westward to homestead in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. It is conservatively estimated that in western Canada, there are 400,000 residents alive today who have a connection to the liner.

After the sinking of the Titanic, regulations regarding safety became very strict. The Empress of Ireland was fitted with 16 steel lifeboats to hold 764 persons; 20 Englehardt and 6 Berthon Types to hold another 1201 for a total of 1965 persons, far exceeding its total capacity of 1536 passengers. CPR had stringent rules for passenger safety. On May 15, 1914 while in Liverpool harbor, during a safety drill, all lifeboats were lowered within 4 minutes.

On May 28, 1914, 1057 passengers boarded the Empress of Ireland at the harbor in Quebec City, for the first of the summer voyages from this city to Liverpool. First class was filled with 87 passenger. Most were business leaders and wealthy persons among whom were world traveler, Sir Henry Seton Karr, actors Mabel and Laurence Irving who had just completed a successful Canadian tour, and Ella Hart-Bennett the wife of the Colonial Secretary of the Bahamas. In Second class, there were 167 members of the Salvation Army on their way to the third Salvation Army International Congress in London. Most noted was the Commander of the Canadian Salvation Army, Commissioner Rees and his family. Third class was comprised of many ethnic groups: Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Italians and Latvians. Most of these passengers were returning to their former homes in Europe to visit their relatives and, in many cases, to bring them over to Canada. This was the first east-bound trip Captain Henry George Kendall, the 39 year old rising star with Canadian Pacific Railway, had been in command of the liner.

On May 28th, 1914 at 4.27 p.m. the Empress began its 96th transatlantic crossing. The Salvation Army Band struck up “God be With You till we Meet Again” as the liner pulled away from the pier. The evening was uneventful. Third class passengers chose what they could from the supper menu of gruel, cabin biscuits and cheese. In the second class music room, passengers were entertained by the Salvation Army band.

The next morning, May 29th, around 1:30 a.m., as was the custom, the pilot departed the ship, now near Rimouski, Quebec. Then the Empress gathered up speed, and headed for open water on the wide St. Lawrence River. Captain Kendall had just arrived on the bridge when he observed a ship low in the water off the starboard side about six miles east. What Kendall saw was a 6,000 ton vessel heading up river from Sydney, Nova Scotia. It was the Norwegian collier, the Storstad, fully loaded with coal. The Empress altered course slightly, planning to pass green to green, or starboard to starboard. At this moment, a huge thick fog bank rolled in. Captain Kendall, certain that he had seen the green light of the other ship, ordered the Empress full astern and gave three short blasts indicating he was reversing. Then he stopped the ship and gave two more blasts, informing the oncoming vessel that the Empress was dead in the water.

S/S Storstad
The Norwegian Collier S/S Storstad

At 1:55 a.m., Kendall was shocked to see the Storstad appearing out of the fog and heading straight toward the Empress. The crew of the Storstad was equally surprised to see the starboard side of a big liner looming towards them. Kendall quickly ordered the Empress full speed ahead. However, the Storstad, with its hull reinforced to protect against ice, plowed into the Empress right between the two funnels inflicting a mortal wound where the liner was extremely vulnerable due to the vastness of the compartments. Kendall shouted through a megaphone for the Storstad to keep going ahead so as to plug the hole. The Storstad remained close to 5 seconds in the hole but the two ships slowly disengaged and 60,000 gallons of water per second poured in to the Empress.

Within three minutes the raging waters reached the dynamos and knocked out power, plunging the passengers, most of whom were asleep, and the crew into total darkness. Passengers, in their night clothes, attempted to make their way to the upper deck on slanting stairs. Some jumped into the water which was almost at freezing temperature. Others tried to escape through the open portholes on the port side but hundreds more remained trapped inside. Because of the list to starboard, the lifeboats on the port side could not be launched. A total of only five lifeboats made it into the water.

One interesting person, William Clarke, a coal stoker in the boiler room, knew exactly what to do when he felt the ship’s reaction to the impact. He immediately scrambled up a special ladder leading directly from the boiler room to the deck and there he helped launch a life boat. Perhaps he had an advantage. Two years before, he had survived a similar experience. He was a coal stoker on the Titanic.

Only 14 minutes after having being struck by the Storstad, the Empress keeled over. Captain Kendall was thrown from the bridge and was eventually hauled into one of the lifeboats. The crew of the Storstad lowered their lifeboats and set about rescuing more than 400 people. When morning broke, the final count was 465 saved and 1012 passengers and crew lost. After the Storstad took aboard nearly all the survivors, they were later transferred to two smaller ships, the "Eureka" and the "Lady Evelyn", which then took the survivors to Rimouski. More passengers perished on the Empress (840) than on the Titanic (829) but the Titanic had a much greater loss of crew members.

S/S Empress of Ireland, Canadian Pacific Line
Picture of the ill fated Empress of Ireland and the collier Storstad after the collision.
The middle photo shows some of the dead being brought ashore at Quebec.
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For the Scandinavians, the death toll was 71 Finns and 20 Swedes. Of the 21 Norwegians aboard, 14 perished. Ironically the death toll of the Norwegians is nearly the same percentage (67%) as perished on the Titanic where 21 of the 31 aboard lost their lives. Among the casualties in First Class were Sir Henry Seton Karr; the famous British actors, Mabel and Laurence Irving ; and Ella Hart Bennett, wife of the Colonial Secretary of the Bahamas. In Second Class, 147 members of the Salvation Army perished along with Commissioner Rees and his family. Of the 138 children on board, only 4 survived, the most noted being Gracie Hanagan, the daughter of the Salvation Army Bandmaster. And so it was that at 2:15 a.m. on May 29, 1914, the Empress of Ireland which had brought over 117,089 passengers to Canada also became a Canadian Titanic: Canada’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

Lord Mersey, who had presided over the Inquiry regarding the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and would do so again when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German Submarine off southern Ireland, presided over the Board of Trade Inquiry into the sinking of the Empress. Convened in Quebec City on June 16, 1914, the Inquiry found the Storstad at fault. A Norwegian Inquiry, conducted at the Norwegian Consulate General in Montreal, ultimately exonerated the Storstad and its captain, Thomas Anderson. To this day, the two conclusions are irreconcilable. The Storstad was seized as requested by the CPR in a $2,000, 000 lawsuit for damages and sold for a sum of $175,000 to Prudential Trust.

Captains Kendall and Anderson both served in the Great War and both were torpedoed. Both men survived but not the Storstad. It was torpedoed on March 8, 1917 and sank near the coast of Ireland. All hands were saved.

Until 1987, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland was the world’s second worst maritime disaster, other than an act of war, after the Titanic. On December 21, 1987 a passenger ferry, the Dona Paz, near the Philippines sank with a loss of over 4000 lives. The story of the Empress of Ireland weaves itself through the tapestry of Canadian history like an invisible thread. But deep in the hearts of those whose ancestors once sailed this great liner, the Empress is remembered as a great Edwardian liner that played a major role in the settling of western Canada.


Name Place where ticket purchased Destination Status
Anderson, Olaf Whitewood, SK Trondhjem Rescued
Banger, Mary Calgary, AB Trondhjem Lost
Bjordal, Peder Bellingham, WA Bergen Rescued
Bronken, Mrs. S Edmonton, AB Kristiania Lost
Bronken, Miss E Edmonton, AB Kristiania Lost
Ericksen, Anthon Chicago, IL Kristiania Lost
Evensen, Arthur Chicago, IL Kristiania Rescued
Fliflet, Mrs.Josephine Minneapolis,MI Bergen Lost
Gard, Johannes Chicago, Ill Stavenger Rescued
Johnson, Ulf Minneapolis, MI Kristiania Lost
Lone, Alick Chicago, Ill Bergen Lost
Lone, Anna Chicago, Ill Bergen Lost
Lone, Clara Chicago, Ill Bergen Lost
Lone, Hans Chicago, Ill Bergen Lost
Lone, Rena Chicago, Ill Bergen Lost
Luren, Magnus Minneapolis, MI Stavanger Rescued (to Iowa, June 2)
Luren, Mrs. Magnus Minneapolis, MI Stavanger Lost, identified
Rask, Peter Broadview, SK Trondhjem Rescued (to Broadview, May 30)
Reed, Laura Vancouver, BC Kristiania Lost
Samuelson, Christian Fort William,ON Stavanger Rescued
Sanden, Miss T Montreal, PQ Trondhjem Lost
21 aboard the "EMPRESS of IRELAND"
14 perished
7 survived
(Source: Canadian Pacific Railway Passenger list, June 15. 1914)

31 aboard the TITANIC
21 perished
10 survived


Name Purchased ticket Destination Status
Anderson, Mrs Alvin Minneapolis, Minn Gothenburg Lost
Anderson, A Vancouver, BC Malmo Lost/identified
Blomquist, August Winnipeg, Man Gothenburg Lost
Blomquist, Elizabet Winnipeg, Man Gothenburg Lost
Blomquist, Fred Winnipeg, Man Gothenburg Lost
Blomquist, Erik Winnipeg, Man Gothenburg Lost
Carlson, A Minneapolis, Minn Gothenburg Lost
Clausen, David Lethbridge, AB Gothenburg Rescued
Engstrom, John Minneapolis, Minn Gothenburg Lost
Erickson, Eric J Rossland, BC Gothenburg Lost
Erickson, Nels. L Bellingham, Wash Gothenburg Rescued
Fransen, Oscar Fernie, BC Gothenburg Lost
Gustafson, John Minneapolis, Minn Gothenburg Lost
Johnson, Andrew Minneapolis, Minn Malmo Rescued
Johnson, Alida Chicago. Ill Gothenburg Lost
Larson, Nels Omaha, Neb Gothenburg Lost
Lindquist, Jonas Shellbrook, SK Gothenburg Rescued
Lindquist, Martha Shellbrook, SK Gothenburg Rescued
Nelson, Gust Minneapolis, Minn Gothenburg Lost
Nilsson, Sigfrid Kamloops, BC Helsingborg Rescued
Parsk, (Barsk) Maria Chicago, Ill Gothenburg Rescued
Peterson, G Sherbrooke, QC Gothenburg Lost
Samuelson, Carl Omaha, Neb Gothenburg Lost
Swan, Chas Minneapolis, Minn Gothenburg Rescued
Swanson, Amandus Kamloops., BC Helsingborg Rescued
Swanson, Martin Maple Creek, SK Malmo Rescued
Towlander, Mrs Winnipeg, MN Gothenburg Lost
Vinquist, C.J. Omaha, NB Gothenburg Lost
28 aboard the liner 18 perished 10 survived.

The Finns on the Empress - An article about the accident (in Finnish) and a list of the Finnish passengers from the Institute of Migration in Finland: "Empress of Ireland -- 70 suomalaissiirtolaista syvyyksiin"

Sectional view of the S/S Empress of Ireland
Sectional view of the sisters Empress of Ireland and Empress of Britain, from an old postcard sent by a passenger on the Empress of Ireland in 1906 from Rimouski to Sweden

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• The S/S Empress of Ireland disaster
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A selection of articles dedicated to help you in your genealogy search for your Norwegian ancestors. Transcripts and pictures of historic documents in connection with the ships and emigration. Also including articles about Pioneers & Norwegian Settlements Around the World
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