OTTAWA — When Heritage Minister James Moore revealed last week that the Canadian Museum of History was being renamed the Canadian Museum of History, a large ship’s bell was among the artifacts arrayed around him at the gala announcement. Had anyone looked closely, they would have noticed the name Empress of Ireland engraved on its polished surface.
The decision to display the brass bell was the museum’s understated way of signalling what curator John Willis calls “the single most important 20th Century acquisition that we've made” — a collection of nearly 500 artifacts recovered from the site of the largest maritime disaster in Canadian history.
In the early hours of May 29, 1914, the Empress of Ireland, an eight-year-old, 170-meter-long ocean liner owned by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Co., capsized and sank in less than 15 minutes after she was rammed broadside by the reinforced steel bow of the Storstad, a Norwegian coal carrier.
Though the collision occurred in the St. Lawrence River just kilometers from the Quebec south shore community of Pointe-au-Père, near Rimouski, 1,012 of the 1,477 people on board perished in the icy waters, including all but four of 138 children. The 840 passengers who died were more than lost their lives in the Titanic disaster two years earlier.
Among the passengers were 167 members of the Salvation Army, including its band, on their way to London for an international congress. Only 26 were rescued.
Though the sinking was front-page news in Canada and worldwide, it was overshadowed by the outbreak of world war two months later. And as the decades have passed, many Canadians have forgotten the story of the Empress of Ireland.
The museum hopes to change that. Its acquisition of Phillipe Beaudry’s Empress collection — which the Longueuil diver recovered from the wreck in the 1970's and 1980's — is the culmination of years of sometimes sputtering negotiations.
In 2010, talks reached an impasse over the value of the relics. They resumed after appraisals commissioned by the museum put the value of the artifacts at $3 million.
In the end, Beaudry settled for a combination of cash and tax write offs though museum officials declined to say how much they had paid. The deal closed in April and received approval from the Canadian Cultural Export Review Board in June, but has not yet been officially announced.
“Finally, this collection is in our national museum,” confirmed Chantal Schryer, the museum’s vice-president of public affairs. “What’s important now is that it’s here and the story is going to be told.”
The museum is planning to incorporate the artifacts into a special exhibition on the Empress of Ireland that will coincide with the centenary of the disaster in 2014. After that, the exhibition will tour the country.
Beaudry had been trying to sell his collection for more than a decade, but couldn’t find anyone in Canada willing to meet his asking price. At one point, he wanted $1 million for the ship’s bell alone.
When it appeared that the collection might be sold to an American buyer in 2000, the then-Liberal government intervened to block export of the bell and other Empress artifacts. Conservative cabinet minister Bev Oda lifted the export restrictions in 2007.
Marion Kelch, an Alberta resident who headed a committee formed in 2003 to keep Beaudry’s collection in Canada, was thrilled by the acquisition. “That’s just wonderful news,” she exclaimed. “Mr. Beaudry’s collection is very, very important.”
When her committee was formed, Kelch said, she approached museums across Canada, urging them to acquire the collection. “Nobody would take it. Not one of them,” she said. Though Kelch “begged” the Museum of History to buy it, “they sort of said it wasn't part of their mandate.
However, that changed after Kelch’s committee raised $45,000 and purchased a few dozen Empress artifacts, mostly from Beaudry. It then donated them to the Royal Alberta Museum, which mounted an exhibition in 2008.
Soon afterwards, Kelch received a call from the Museum of History's director confiding that the museum was now interested in acquiring the collection. They talked for about an hour. “I said, ‘Oh my God, I just think you should get that if you possibly can.’”
You’ll get no argument from Willis. “This is a huge story,” he said. “That’s our business here at the Museum of History. We deal with big stories.
“There’s lots of people whose bones are still down there. We owe it to their memory to try to give an explanation: how did this happen, and what did it mean to us?”
The ship’s bell, which weighs more than 200 kilograms, is the “pièce de résistance” of the collection, Willis said. It sat atop one of the Empress of Ireland’s two masts and was her fog bell — particularly relevant since the ship collided with the Storstad in thick fog. “That’s why it speaks so much to the story of the Empress,” Willis said.
The collection also includes shiny brass pieces that were part of the ship’s steering system, a porcelain cabin sink, soap dishes, light switches, a pocket watch and a number of bottles, some of which still contain beer, wine or champagne.
There’s also a large collection of plates, embossed with the Canadian Pacific logo. Many are still intact, but others are in pieces. Those, too, will be put on display, Willis said, to remind visitors that what happened to the Empress was “not a pleasant story.
A smashed porthole is particularly evocative. “It just speaks to what’s going on here,” Willis said. Contrary to regulations, most portholes were open for ventilation when the two ships collided, Water poured through them, accelerating the ship’s sinking.
Willis said the planned 2014 exhibition will recreate the Empress of Ireland’s final voyage, including events leading up to her departure from Quebec City for Liverpool, her trip down the St. Lawrence River, her rendezvous with fate off Pointe-au-Père and the aftermath of the disaster.
Though an inquiry later put the blame — perhaps unfairly — on the captain of the Storstad, only a handful of passengers were called to testify. As a result, “We don’t have as much material from the inquiry pertaining to passengers as we would have liked.”
But the museum has also acquired a lot of archival material collected by Beaudry, including a memoir written by Florence Barbour, a four-year-old passenger on the doomed ship.
Along with her mother and sister, young Florence was en route back to England after her father was killed in a mining accident in British Columbia. Though her mother and sister died, Florence survived “because a man stepped in and helped her just before she fell into the water,” said Willis, who is hoping the memoir will provide “a flavor of what her experience was.”
Along with the Empress of Britain, her sister ship, the Empress of Ireland shuttled hundreds of thousands of people between England and Canada, including innumerable immigrants. According to some estimates, as many as one million present-day Canadians can trace their ancestry to someone who came to this country on one of the two ships.
Many settled in the Prairies. “I went around the prairie provinces to small towns,” said Kelch, who has written a play about the disaster, “and found so many people have a connection to the Empress of Ireland.”
Built near Glasgow, the Empress of Ireland began plying the Liverpool-to-Quebec City route in 1906. She could accommodate up to 1,580 passengers in three classes and was known as a safe and reliable ship. She had just begun her 96th crossing when she sank in 40 meters of water about five kilometers from shore.
Over the years, divers stripped thousands of artifacts from the wreck, some of which are on display at the Musée de la mer near Rimouski. However, the looting ceased after the Quebec government declared the wreck a provincial historic site in 1999. It was declared a national historic site in 2009.
Since the adoption of ethical bylaws in the 1990's, many museums won’t accept or display items recovered for commercial exploitation, fearing that would foster the market for unregulated and unscientific recovery of artifacts.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, for example, won’t accept anything recovered from salvage missions to the Titanic, said Paul F. Johnston, the museum’s curator of maritime history.
But the items in Beaudry’s collection were gathered long before those ethical guidelines were adopted, so they fall into a different category, Johnston said. “I can’t say I would embrace the (Empress of Ireland) objects, and I can’t say I would aggressively try to display them. But I cannot be critical of the museum.”
Schryer said the museum sought legal advice before acquiring Beaudry’s collection. “We were told that everything was fine. We weren’t breaking any rules whatsoever.”
“As a national museum, we represent Canadians,” she said. “We can’t afford to make that type of mistake.”