Historic Maritime Museum Complex Offers Visitors a Glimpse into Yesterday
It was 2:00 a.m. on May 29, 1914 and the fog off Pointe-au-Père, Quebec, had settled like a thick woolen blanket over the St. Lawrence River. The mate on lookout aboard the RMS Empress of Ireland scanned the murky water, straining to see through the gauzy haze. Suddenly it was there, a ship steaming directly toward them on a collision course. The startled watchman couldn’t believe his eyes and began shouting, “Full reverse, full reverse.”
The wheelhouse responded by slamming the powerful steam engines into reverse and turning the ship to lessen the blow. It was a fatal mistake.
The coal ship SS Storstad sliced broadside into the Empress like a hot battering ram through butter, buckling her two main water-tight compartments. Built in1906, the Empress was designed with 24 of these compartments built like boxes within boxes that were supposed to keep the ship afloat even if some of the compartments filled with water. It was the same design used in the ill-fated Titanic.
However, the Storstad had dealt a crushing blow. The two large compartments it hit contained the ship’s vital operations – electrical and engine room.
The Empress immediately began taking on water. Its third class portholes, mere feet from the water level, allowed water to gush in. Those in the lower quarters who were sleeping at this early hour drowned without ever knowing what happened.
Passengers on upper decks were awakened by the collision and the subsequent chaos. People poured from their cabins and scrambled onto the decks. Within minutes, the Empress began to list so badly crews were unable to lower the lifeboats. Passengers were thrown into the freezing water.
It took a mere 14 minutes for the Empress to sink to her watery grave, taking over 1,000 souls with her. The lightly damaged Storstad steamed onto Montreal.
At the Pointe-au-Père Marine Historical Site’s Empress of Ireland Pavilion in the lower St. Lawrence region’s village of Rimouski, visitors can relive the tragedy of the Empress of Ireland. Set amidst turn-of-the-century clapboard buildings, the museum is housed in two modernistic grey boxy structures topped with red structures representing the ship’s smoke stacks. One of the boxes lists crazily to the side like the Empress in her death throes.
To understand the scope of the disaster, visitors should start in the museum’s theatre and watch the 20-minute video that dramatically recreates the collision and subsequent sinking of this ship.
The other half of museum is filled with artifacts that have been brought up from where the Empress lies in the murky water – bottles, dinnerware, the ship’s wheel, a shattered porthole.
There are also panels (in both French and English) that give more detail about the accident, including the separate inquiries that found the captain of the Storstad guilty and not guilty of negligence.
After visiting the Empress of Ireland museum, cross the street and explore the historic Pointe-au-Père lighthouse. Built in 1909, this 33 meter concrete lighthouse with its supporting flying buttresses, was considered an innovation in its time.
The lighthouse, which replaced two wooden lighthouses that had burned down, marked the spot where ships needed to stop and take on a river pilot to navigate the treacherous currents of the St. Law
rence on their way to Montreal and the Great Lakes. You can follow a docent up the 128 steps to the impressive prism that, until 1975 when it was replaced by a nearby metal lighthouse, blinked on for 15 seconds in eight separate rotations.
A stone’s throw from the lighthouse is the submarine Onondaga, the only submarine open to the public in Canada.
Built in 1967 at 90 meters long and weighing 1600 tons, this Oberon-class submarine is an impressive sight. The sub, decommissioned and hauled to Pointe-au-Père in 2008, saw 33 years of NATO service during the Cold War years.
The diesel-electric submarine, an early hybrid much like many of today’s automobiles, was one of the quietest and fastest non-nuclear submarines of its time. On the surface, it could speed along at 13 knots; underwater a blazing 17 knots (at that speed, the electric batteries would last only 30 minutes).
To get a real flavor of life aboard the Onondaga, take the 45-minute, self-guided audio tour. The characters in the recorded tour allow you to be part of the crew in a simulated sail and dive.
You’ll wend your way through tight-fitting passages and bulkheads, see the tiny spaces where the crew and officers ate and slept, and check out the torpedo room where torpedoes stand ready to be loaded into the tubes.
On your way out, stop at the gift shop for maritime-related keepsakes.