The night the Empress of Ireland went down

She was supposedly safer than the Titanic ... but in a few fog-shrouded minutes of error she sank in the St. Lawrence with a thousand lives. This is the graphic story

Ray Gardner March 28 1959

The night the Empress of Ireland went down

She was supposedly safer than the Titanic ... but in a few fog-shrouded minutes of error she sank in the St. Lawrence with a thousand lives. This is the graphic story

Ray Gardner March 28 1959

The night the Empress of Ireland went down

She was supposedly safer than the Titanic ... but in a few fog-shrouded minutes of error she sank in the St. Lawrence with a thousand lives. This is the graphic story

Ray Gardner

Then rose from sea to sky the wild farewell— Then shriek’d the timid, and stood still the brave— Then some leap’d overboard with dreadful yell, As eager to anticipate their grave . . .


The big ship cruised down the St. Lawrence as serenely as the river itself flowed down to the sea. She was a fine ship, the Empress of Ireland—fourteen thousand tons of steel and Edwardian elegance. With her sister ship, Empress of Britain, she was the pride of the Canadian Pacific’s Atlantic fleet. Her twin screws thrust her through the water at a top speed of eighteen knots, outward bound this night of May 28, 1914, on a fast summer run from Quebec to Liverpool.

In her splendid dining saloon a young Englishman, M. D. A. Darling, returning home from Shanghai, sat idly fingering a printed program of a recital to be given by the ship's orchestra. His eye lingered for a moment over one selection, the Funeral March of a Marionette, but was quickly diverted to the gay party of men and women at a nearby table who toasted one another in champagne. The actor, Laurence Irving, his beautiful wife, Mabel Hackney, and their company were celebrating the end of a successful Canadian tour.

Among the diners was a less worldly company, a Salvation Army contingent of two hundred men, women and children, going to London for their international congress. After dinner a group of them gathered in the music room where Adjutant Harry Green played the piano. On deck Ensign Olie Mardall led some of the young people in a round of sentimental songs and hymns.

A world in herself the Empress of Ireland imparted to her company of more than a thousand passengers a sense of security.. And well she might, for the Empress was fitted with every modern safety device and designed to stay afloat even if any two adjacent watertight compartments were flooded.

In 1912 the White Star giant, Titanic, the so-called unsinkable ship, had struck an iceberg and gone to her grave with 1,513 people. The Titanic boasted every luxury, from Turkish baths to a French café, hut carried lifeboats for only a third of her passengers and crew. A lesson had been learned and the Empress’ lifeboat capacity had been increased to 1,860, more than enough for everyone aboard.

On the bridge of the great liner was her proud master, Captain Henry George Kendall, described by one of his officers, chief Marconi operator Ronald Ferguson, as "a typical merchant captain of the more commanding type.” Just

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“In the cold river hundreds of men, women and children fought against impossible odds"

under six feet tall, immaculately dressed, Kendall, like his ship, inspired confidence. At thirty-nine he was young to command an Empress. For twelve years he had held his master's ticket and for six he had commanded the company's ships, but only since the first of May had the Empress been his. His salary was £850 a year, handsome pay in 1914.

The night was fine and clear. Now, well on toward two o'clock, only the crew on watch stirred on the Empress’ decks.

Kendall easily made out. at a distance of six miles, the masthead lights of an approaching ship, the Norwegian collier Storstad. making her way up river to Montreal with 10.800 tons of Nova Scotia coal. On the Storstad’s bridge, Chief Officer Alfred Toftenes. thirty-three years old and promoted to first mate only five weeks before, sighted the liner’s range lights. As the gap between them closed, a fog bank swept suddenly out from the Quebec shore and enveloped the two ships. When, through the curtain of fog, the two ships sighted one another again it was too late. The Storstad struck the Empress amidships, on her starboard side. The collier’s bow, like a giant's axe. cleaved through the Empress’ plates and on through twenty feet of steel deck. '1 he liner shuddered, wounded fatally. In less than fifteen minutes—at about 2.10 a.m. —the Empress keeled over and sank.

Trapped below decks, many of the Empress’ company — no one will ever know how many—went to the bottom with her. In the cold river hundreds of men, women and children fought for their lives against impossible odds. A few found safety in the lifeboats. Scores floated in their life jackets and screamed for help or whimpered in despair. Some grasped bits of debris—a deck chair, a hatch cover, even a suitcase. Many, who in the confusion had failed to find lite jackets, struggled desperately until, exhausted, they vanished beneath the river. The cold exacted a heavy toll, as one after another perished from exposure.

The moans of the dying still filled the air as the fog vanished, leaving the Storstad standing alone in a sea of floundering survivors and bobbing corpses.

A thousand and twelve men. women and children perished with the Empress. Of her 1,477 passengers and crew only 465 were saved. It was the greatest maritime disaster Canada has ever known and, after the Titanic, one of the world’s worst shipping catastrophes.

Of the Empress’ forty boats only three steel lifeboats and one collapsible boat got away. There was no time to heed the command. “Women and children first.” Only four children—three girls and a boy—of the 138 on board survived. Of 310 women passengers, all but 41 were lost. Nine of the ten stewardesses perished.

Capt. Kendall survived. In all, 248 of the 420 officers and crew w'ere rescued while only 217 of 1.057 passengers were saved. All hands had done their duty; they had simply profited from their training and knowledge of the ship.

The Empress’ safety devices had been thoroughly checked before she put to sea. On May 23, as she lay at her berth in Quebec, Kendall put his men through boat drill and inspection. It took only thirty seconds to close the watertight doors in the engine room, not quite four

minutes to shut those on deck. Three boats were lowered into the river as the CPR’s safety supervisor, Capt. Hugh Staunton, watched.

The pier had been a mass of people, most of them come to bid Godspeed

to the departing Salvationists, as the Empress set sail from Quebec on a pleasant spring afternoon, Thursday, May 28. They came to attention as the Army’s Toronto staff band, assembled on an upper deck, struck up O Canada. As the

ship cast off at 4.20 p.m.. Adjutant Edward Hanagan led the band in God Be With You Till We Meet Again.

Capt. J. E. Dodd, an editor of the Army’s newspaper. The War Cry. made his way to the library to write the first

installment of his Travel Jottings. This he concluded with a description of the ship's departure. "We were on our way to the congress in a deeper sense than ever before,” he wrote, “and the next stop was Liverpool.” His dispatch was posted in time to be taken off by the mail tender Lady Evelyn when the ship reached Rimouski, Que., about a hundred and eighty miles below Quebec City, after midnight. Capt. Dodd and his bride went down with the Empress.

At 1.20 a.m. the Empress stood off Father Point. Pilot Adélard Bernier, who had guided the ship from Quebec, boarded the tug Eureka.

At this very spot on a July day in 1910, Kendall, then commander of the S.S. Montrose, bound for Quebec, had taken on board Inspector Walter Dew, of Scotland Yard. Dew had then arrested the notorious murderer. Dr. Hawley Crippen. and his mistress. Ethel Le Neve. Crippen had poisoned his wife and dissected her corpse. In flight, he and Miss Le Neve, disguised as a boy, had boarded the Montrose at Antwerp, posing as "Mr. and Master Robinson."

Kendall discovered their true identity and radioed his owners. It was the first time the comparatively new invention of wireless had been used to trap a fugitive. and Kendall’s name was on the world’s front pages. It was said that as Crippen went to the gallows he placed a curse on the young sea captain.

It was seaman Jock Carroll in the Empress' crow:;-nest who first sighted the Storstad’s masthead lights. He signaled the bridge.

On the six-thousand-ton Storstad, Chief Officer Toftenes and third Officer Jacob Saxe saw the Empress minutes later, off their starboard bow. The master. Capt. Thomas Andersen, and his wife were asleep. Toftenes had standing orders to call the captain in the event of fog.

Traveling at full speed, the Empress was now a good four miles out into the river. Capt. Kendall changed course to starboard to head his ship down to the sea. The vessels now were steaming on parallel courses. The Storstad bore one point, or eleven degrees, on the Empress of Ireland’s starboard bow. It was what mariners term “a very fine bearing” but the ships would pass safely, starboard to starboard. To confirm this. Kendall checked his own heading and the Storstad’s position on the compass.

Moments later both Kendall and Toftenes saw a fog bank sweeping off the shore and toward their ships. Kendall watched the Storstad’s lights grow dim and then fade away altogether. Toftenes peered into the fog in vain for a glimpse of the liner’s lights.

What now took place on the bridge of each ship, what orders were given and carried out from the moment the ves-

sels lost sight of one another and until they collided, was to be bitterly disputed by the owners, officers and men of the two ships through a long and painstaking official inquiry.

Capt. Kendall became wary almost the instant the Storstad was shut out by the fog. He telegraphed the engine room, “Stop,” and then. “Full speed astern,” to halt the forward movement of his ship, and, once again, “Stop.” A glance over the rail told him she had come to a standstill. The Empress blew two prolonged blasts to tell the oncoming vessel she was stopped. And there the big liner stood motionless for five, perhaps seven, minutes.

On the Storstad. Toftenes had already made one mistake in failing to call his captain when the fog first appeared. Now, it was charged later at an official inquiry, he and Saxe made the fatal mistake. According to this charge Toftenes had wrongly concluded, just before the fog shut the liner out, that she was now on his port side and would pass him port to port and, it was said, he changed his course in the fog. The helm was ordered to port—to swing the Storstad’s bow to starboard and away from what he mistakenly thought was the path of the Empress. Saxe ordered the wheel hardaport. Unwittingly, they aimed their ship directly at the liner. Now Toftenes called Capt. Andersen to the bridge.

Peering into the fog, Kendall saw the lights of the Storstad. She was no more than a hundred feet away, bearing down on him at ten knots, her ’bow almost at right angles to the Empress. In desperation. Kendall megaphoned to the Storstad. “Go full speed astern!" He ordered his own engines full ahead, the helm hard-aport in a futile attempt to escape or at least minimize the inevitable blow. To First Officer Edward Jones, he yelled. “Get all hands and get the boats ready!”

On the Storstad. Capt. Andersen, now in command, threw his engines into reverse. It was too late.

A sheet of flame shot from the side of the Empress as the collier struck just abaft amidships, between the liner’s two funnels. The Storstad’s bow sliced through her plates—seven eighths of an inch of steel—as though they were of tin foil and penetrated twenty feet into the vitals of the liner.

As the Empress shuddered under the blow. Kendall blew the siren to signal. “Prepare to abandon ship. Close the watertight doors.” Again he stopped his ship and called to the Storstad, “Keep full speed ahead.” The collier’s bow. imbedded in the Empress’ side, might plug the wound. He telephoned the engine room. “Close the doors.” “We’re already doing it.” came the reply. Then he ran to the deck to help ready the lifeboats.

The impact swung the Storstad around so that her bow pulled out of the Em-

press’ side within seconds of striking her. The collier glided past the liner's bow and off into the fog. She had torn a hole in the Ireland's plates 46 feet in height and about 350 square feet in area, opening her two boiler rooms. 175 feet in length, to the river. A Niagara of water rushed in—265 tons per second.

Back on the bridge, already dangerously aslant, Kendall telephoned Chief Engineer William Sampson, “Give her all you have, I am going to try to beach her.” “The steam is gone,” Sampson replied. The captain turned to Chief Officer M. R. Steed: "Send the SOS signal to Father Point.” “We have already done so,” Steed reported.

In the wireless shack the chief Marconi operator. Ronald Ferguson, worked in pyjamas. The tug Eureka, with the Empress’ pilot still aboard, left Father Point under full steam. The postal tender Lady Evelyn, her throttle wide open, sped out of Rimouski.

Chief Steward August Gaade came on the bridge. “Well,” said Gaade, “this looks to be about the finish.” Resignedly, Kendall said. “Yes, and a terrible finish it is, too.”

Meanwhile, below decks, passengers and crew had come to life.

Firemen and trimmers ran out of a stokehold, a rush of water at their heels. No. 90 bulkhead door came crashing down behind them, one of the few of her twenty-four watertight doors to be closed. Fourth Junior Engineer James McEwen, choking on coal dust, dashed out of No. 3 stokehold intent on closing one of the starboard doors. A wall of water came rushing toward him. “I ran for my life, that’s what I did,” McEwen recalled later.

The whistles of the two ships had aroused a few passengers even before the crash and the sound of the collision awoke many more. A few slept on. An Englishman. Jim Walker, slept until water cascaded through his porthole. James Ferguson, a Canadian passenger, awoke to see his suitcase afloat.

Men and women, coats or robes flung hastily over their nightdress, streamed into the companion ways. Mothers lost precious - moments as they stopped to dress their children.

Without panic, passengers began to make their way to the boats. Men of the Salvation Army went in search of their wives, who were billeted in separate cabins.

The torrent of inrushing water was dragging down the Empress on her starhoard side, lifting her port side out of the water. Now. in the companionways. men and women walked with one foot on the floor, the other on the wall. Laurence Irving, the actor, blood trickling from a gash in his forehead, tried to calm his wife. “I’ll see that we get away all right, darling,” he assured her. It was a promise he could not keep. He was later found floating in his life jacket, dead from exposure, a shred of her nightdress clutched in his hand.

When the lights failed those still below were doomed. In the dark only a miracle could guide a man through this maze where, as in a house of horrors, the floor had become a wall, and the wall a ceiling.

On the Empress’ slanting decks, officers and men, hardly able to keep their footing, worked feverishly to get the starboard boats away. There was never a hope of launching those on the high port side. No. 1 boat went out with a terrific swing, throwing six men into the water. Three more sparsely filled boats got away and began picking up those who had already leaped into the river. Men and women were sliding down the

steep deck and into the water. First Officer Jones, trying to lower No. 7, slid and disappeared over the side.

Scores of men and women clambered over the rail and stood on the ship's plates. A Salvationist began a hymn but it died amid the screams of terror. Doomed passengers watched in horror as the Empress’ port screw lifted out of the water.

Here and there the heads of passengers trapped below appeared through portholes. Dr. James Grant, the ship’s surgeon, had slept soundly, waking only

when the listing ship threw him out of his bunk. Now, his shoulders wedged in a narrow porthole, his feet dancing in the air. he struggled to get out onto the side of the ship. M. D. A. Darling, the young Englishman who at dinner had been momentarily fascinated by the title of a piece of music, the Funeral March of a Marionette, and another man pulled the doctor through.

It was now no more than fifteen minutes since the Storstad had dealt the Empress her death blow. The Empress gave a sudden lurch. The weight of her super-

structure brought her dow>n on her side. Like huge sledge hammers, the funnels struck people floundering in the water. One of the funnels crushed a lifeboat and its occupants.

As the Empress plunged to the bottom an explosion ripped through her. Smoke and steam shot out of her open ports. Hundreds were sucked deep into the powerful vortex, and then were shot to the surface again.

Capt. Kendall was catapulted from the flying bridge as his ship disappeared. He came to the surface as two waves met

and closed in over the Empress. From No. 3 lifeboat he heard a cry, “There’s the captain! Let's save him!” Dragged into the boat, he steered it among the survivors, taking fifty or more aboard and stringing others along the lifelines.

In the fog, Capt. Andersen, on the Storstad. was unaware of the Empress’ plight until he heard the cries of those in the water. “At first 1 didn’t know what it was—it was like one long sound.” He manoeuvred his ship as close to the survivors as he dared. Then his four boats went to the rescue.

Now the curtain of fog was drawn aside to reveal a terrible scene. Salvationist Ernest Green, of Toronto, was to describe it later: "1 could think of nothing but a village suddenly Hooded and all the people floating in the water. It was awful to see those faces bobbing up and down.” Somewhere among them were his father. Adjutant Harry Green, his mother, and his sister Jessie. He never saw them again.

Bandmaster Hanagan swam with his eight-year-old daughter Grace to a piece of wreckage, and then vanished. Grace’s mother also perished, but the child herself was saved. Robert Crcllin, a wealthy farmer from Silverton. B.C., swam with eight-year-old Florence Barbour, a neighbor’s child, clinging to his back. Leonard Delamont, leader of the Salvation Army band at Moose Jaw, sacrificed himself by giving his life jacket to his mother who used it to save herself and her daughter. Leonard's father and brother Arthur were also rescued. (Today Arthur is conductor of the famous Kitsilano Boys’ Band, of Vancouver.)

“You were going full speed”

Kendall put his first load of survivors aboard the Storstad, and then, with six volunteers, set out again. “Everybody 1 came to on the water was dead." he said later. “I felt them myself to see if there was any life in them.”

Exhausted, Kendall returned to the Storstad and made his way to the bridge where he confronted Capt. Andersen.

“Are you the captain of this ship?” Kendall asked.

Andersen replied simply, “Yes.”

“You have sunk my ship. You were going full speed and in that dense log."

"I was not. You were going full speed.'

"1 was not." Kendall declared. "If I had been you would never have hit me."

A river pilot who had just come aboard intervened. The young captain staggered into the chart room and collapsed.

When the Eureka arrived on the scene at three o'clock and the Lady Evelyn forty-five minutes later there was nothing for them to do but take survivors to Rimouski. Of the four hundred and eightyeight they carried, twenty-three were to die before the ships reached shore.

In June an official inquiry was held at Quebec, presided over by Lord Mersey, who had also conducted the Titanic inquiry.

Capt. Kendall and Chief Officer Toftenes, the two young men who had guided the ships in those final fatal minutes, told irreconcilable stories. Kendall maintained that his ship was motionless and only by the Storstad changing course could a collision have occurred. Toftenes swore he had stopped the Storstad in the foe, had then proceeded slowly, and had r^t changed course. The Empress, he charged, was traveling at top speed and had changed her course.

In their report, the commissioners concluded the Storstad had changed course and was to blame.

The compassion Lord Mersey and his

fellow commissioners felt for the young Norwegian, Toftenes, was to emerge even through the stiff formal phrases of their report. “We regret,” they said, “to have to impute blame to anyone in this lamentable disaster and we should not do so if we felt that any reasonable alternative was left to us . . . We can. however, come to no other conclusion than that Mr. Toftenes was wrong and negligent in altering his course in the fog, as he undoubtedly did,” they said, “and that he was wrong and negligent in keeping the navigation of the vessel in his own hands and in failing to call the captain when he saw the fog coming on.”

A Quebec court later confirmed the Mersey commission’s verdict, finding the Storstad solely to blame. The ship was seized and sold for $175,000. Against this there were claims for $3,069,483, including $469,467 for loss of life and $2,400,000 by the CPR for loss of the Empress of Ireland. The court ruled that the claims for loss of life should be given priority in payment from the $175,000.

This the CPR appealed, unsuccessfully, to the Supreme Court of Canada. The company then went to the Privy Council, and there the case finally ended, in December 1919, with a decision in favor of the CPR. The money, it was ruled, must be paid out on a pro rata basis. Thus the CPR received $60,000. plus court costs. This sum the CPR turned over to the insurance companies which had already indemnified the company to the extent of two million dollars. (Later a Norwegian inquiry found the Storstad blameless.)

Cleared of any responsibility for the loss of his ship. Kendall continued to rise in the ranks of the Canadian Pacific, retiring, in 1938. after twenty years as the company’s marine superintendent for London and Southampton. Now eightythree, he lives in England. “People," he says, “seem to think I’m playing a harp. But it’s not so. I'm still going strong.”

During the First World War Kendall commanded HMS Calgarian, a luxury liner serving as a cruiser. On March 1, 1918, the Calgarian was sunk by German U-boats, with a loss of forty-nine lives. Kendall finished out the war carrying dispatches to France and as a commodore of convoys.

Ronald Ferguson, who sent the SOS from the sinking Empress, is today general manager of Marconi International, with headquarters in Britain. Over the years he has kept in touch with Kendall.

To the Salvation Army the day the Empress of Ireland sank became known as “Black Friday.” for lost with her were a hundred and sixty-seven men. women and children of the Army, ampngr them the Canadian commander. Commissioner David M. Rees, his wife, two daughters and a son. In the words of a contemporary writer, “the very flower of the Salvation Army in Canada” went down with the ship. Of the party of two hundred that had Sailed from Quebec only thirtythree survv’ed. Mrs. George E. Cook, of Vancouver, now eighty-six. recalls leaving the west coast with a group of twentyseven women. “I was the only one to come back,” she sighs.

Every year since the disaster the Salvation Army has held a commemorative service in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery. And every year but two. when she was ill. Mrs. M. E. Martyn. of 1.ondon, Ont., has laid the wreath. Mrs. Martyn is the former Grace Hanagan. orphaned as a child of eight by the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. She was the youngest Salvationist to survive. It was her father who led the Toronto staff band in God Be With You Till We Meet Again as the ship sailed from Quebec that day in May forty-four years ago. jg