The R.M.S. Empress of Ireland Community

Shipwreck declared national historic site. Nearly a century after the Empress of Ireland sank in the St. Lawrence River, taking the lives of more than 1,000 passengers and crew, the wreck of the elegant luxury liner that represents Canada's worst maritime disaster has finally been declared a national historic site.

The mammoth, Titanic-era liner is also famous for its role in transporting tens of thousands of immigrants to Canada during a pivotal period in the country's growth. Today, about one million Canadians are descendants of immigrants who arrived in this country aboard the Empress of Ireland, which crossed the Atlantic Ocean regularly for about a decade before colliding with a Norwegian freighter in dense fog on May 29, 1914, and sinking in 30 metres of water.

"This sea tragedy marked the memory of an entire generation, and we have to make sure that it is not forgotten," Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who oversees Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board (HSMB), said in announcing the designation. "It is important to allow every Canadian to know about this page of history and to honour those who lost their lives."

The wreck was discovered in 1964, about four kilometres from the shore of Pointe-au-Père, Que., where a regional museum commemorates the sinking. Before restrictions were put in place in 1999, the wreck site was a mecca for scavenging divers who stripped the sunken vessel of hundreds of artefacts that still show up as historic treasures at auctions around the world. The ship remains a popular but protected dive site. The HSMB plans to place underwater panels near the wreck — along with a shoreline plaque — to signify its status as a National Historic Site.

The ship is one of just a handful of wreck sites in Canada to be declared a national treasure. Others include the War of 1812 sloops Hamilton and Scourge in Lake Ontario, the remains of 16th-century Basque whaling ships at Red Bay, N.L., and the still-missing Terror and Erebus from the ill-fated 19th-century Arctic Ocean expedition led by Sir John Franklin.

National Historic Site