The R.M.S. Empress of Ireland Community

1909 Incident

The Government steamers La Canadienne and Lord Strathcona, which have been ordered by the Department of Marine to make a search for the sunken wreckage off Matane, which the Empress of Ireland is supposed to have struck. The two vessels are now in the vicinity and the channel will be swept thoroughly. Heavy weather down the lower river during the past few days has considerably interfered with navigation, but now it has cleared and the two steamers will search for the obstruction.
Thursday, October 14, 1909 2:15 pm
The Empress of Ireland, commanded by Captain John V. Forester, is off Matane in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, steaming at 18 knots--almost full speed--toward Quebec City. It is almost the end of an otherwise routine voyage from Liverpool. Suddenly the Empress strikes an object on the port side and the giant liner heels to starboard.
Two crew members, Robert Fayle and William Braine, both waiters, look over the port side rail and see a 20-foot piece of spar and what looks like part of a deck floating at the surface for a few moments before it vanishes beneath the waves.


Within the ship, seamen in the forward stoke hold work desperately to extinguish the boiler fires as water floods into the stricken vessel. Captain Forester orders his men to close the watertight doors as a precaution to prevent flooding into other compartments, and reduces speed to Dead Slow while steering the Empress out toward the center of the channel. In the lower decks Third Class passengers begin to panic as Steward Arthur Owen starts to close his watertight door but things eventually quiet down when everyone realizes that the damage has been contained.


The Empress limps slowly toward Quebec City, its forward stoke hold flooded with 20 feet of water. Captain Forester congratulates the men who had worked so hard to prevent the accident from becoming worse, and gives them each a bottle of beer.


Saturday, October 16.
The Empress docks at Quebec City's Reford Wharf at 5:00 pm and her passengers disembark. The Canadian Pacific Railway Co., advised of the collision, has already hired a team of hardhat divers to investigate the damage to the Empress's keel. However, before the divers arrive, another problem arises: the hawsers had been overtightened, thus bringing the ship up against the side of the wharf. This may have been done to keep the Empress as stable as possible so the divers could inspect the keel.
Unfortunately, someone forgot that the steel oval step, located under each gangway door, protrudes outward about six inches from the side of the ship. Thus, as the tide slowly ebbs, these oval steps catch on the wharf and cause the ship to heel to starboard. Finally the iron steps slip off the dock, and the Empress rolls suddenly back to port. The port side hull hits the wharf and the ship settles slowly on an even keel, but not before breaking a few dishes in the dining saloons.


The fire is first noticed at 8:17 pm by Const. Mercier of No. 10 police station, located on the Louise Embankment. As the constable is leaving the station, he notices flames coming from a window of one of the conveyors leading from the grain elevators of the Canadian Northern Railway to the marine tower on the inner basin. Telephoning to the nearby Fire Station No. 5 is for Mercier a matter of a few seconds and immediately an alarm from box 48 is sent in, followed eight minutes later by a second alarm. Before the first detachment of the brigade arrives, the flames are making their way through the conveyor and into the elevator which contains 140,000 bushels of grain.
A strong west wind fans the flames and carries cinders and sparks towards the river. The Levis fire brigade is called from across the river, as the Quebec firefighters judge the fire to be out of control and threatening a nearby large cold-storage building. A steam engine, working from a tug, renders splendid service while the Government steamer Lord Strathcona joins in the work with its fire-fighting equipment.
At one point the heat is so intense that paint on the side of the Empress begins to peel, and a couple of portholes crack. Her crew hoses down the hull with water, desperately trying to keep the ship cool until she can be moved by a tug, since there is no pressure in her boilers. Finally the tug Belle arrives and pulls her away from the burning docks and into the Louise basin.
The Empress of Ireland is saved from total destruction by fire--a common fate for vessels moored to a burning pier--that Saturday night only by the excellent work of Captain Forester, the officers and crew. Moving a large vessel like the Empress, lying alongside a dock of seething flames, to the north side of the harbor basin is no small task. Add to this the fact the Empress's crew had already been assisting the firemen on the dock. Yet, the Empress is moved without mishap or confusion, which speaks well for the Canadian Pacific Railway Co., Captain Forester and the men of this proud vessel.
Once things are back to normal, the tug Bison pumps out Empress's forward stoke hold. After divers and naval engineers inspect the damage, it is decided to fill the puncture in the Empress's keel with a temporary patch of cement and wood. Permanent repairs will be done in England. It then takes the ship ten days to cross the Atlantic with a skeleton crew, bound for Liverpool and the Brocklebank Graving Dry dock. Once there, a number of marine surveying companies are called in to examine the extent of damage and report on its likely cause.


While their ship is in dry dock, a number of the crew venture under the Empress's keel to inspect the damage firsthand. One crewman remarks if he had seen the extent of the damage before the Empress had left Quebec City, he would not have appreciated going back to England in her.


It is important for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Co. to determine if the Empress had struck an uncharted rock or derelict in the St. Lawrence. The company therefore asks several consulting firms to submit their opinions. Below are some of the opinions.
November 11, 1909 George Hepburn & Sons, Consulting Engineers & Naval Architects Certificate of Survey:
"We carefully examined the damage and in our opinion it has been caused by the vessel striking a submerged wreckage composed of timbers and iron and other hard substances. The damage was in five distinct places and that while there is a little local scoring, in other places there is no scoring in other places where the worst damage occurs even to the bursting of the heavy hull plates. Which suggest that it must have been something else other than rocks which would have scored the hull plates and torn it open in continuous lines of damage, more particularly, as the vessel at the time she met the obstruction was said to be traveling at full speed."


Flannery and Given, Consulting Engineers survey:
It was their opinion that the vessel had passed over some submerged waterlogged wooden derelict, as the absence of the fore and aft continuous scouring indicates that the damage was not caused by passing over rocks or other fixed hard substances. The intermittent or isolated nature of the damage indicates that the cause of the damage, although submerged, was in suspension and the Empress struck on the port side forward and she would list to starboard as indicated by the slight damage to the two hull plates on that side amidships in a position between the forward, right and after indents on the starboard side, and then roll back to the port and sustained the after damages on the port side. A fracture was also found on the port propeller blades.


Declaration of Mowatt:
"While examining the keel hull plate of the Empress I found on the port side of the ship wedged in the forward outer corner of the fifth butt strap of the keel plate counting from aft and between frames 64 and 65, a sliver of wood 5 1/2 inches long."


The RMS Empress of Ireland remains in dry dock for three months to complete repairs before returning to service.


Story submitted by Ian Kinder and Derek Grout