On 28 May 1914, the magnificent “Empress of Ireland” set sail from Quebec City to sail to Britain. In the early hours of the following morning, it was rammed on the starboard side by a collier in the St. Lawrence River, 1012 passengers and crew losing their lives. The following passage is from the book “The Pathway of Duty,” an account of the “Empress of Ireland” tragedy. This section tells of the ship’s sailing
The Sailing of the Empress
As the stewards roamed the ship’s passageways and decks, Ernie heard their voices proclaiming loudly, “All ashore who’s going ashore.” As the final preparations for cast-off were in progress, Ernie joined other bandsmen who were going below to a small storage room where their musical instruments were located, since it had been arranged that the band would perform as the ship set sail. While the Staff Band was assembling on the promenade deck, the sounds were heard of the gangways being removed. It was a cloudless day, the blue sky stretching endlessly behind the steep, rock-faced cliffs of old Quebec.
Mooring lines were lifted from the “bollards,” dropped into the water, and pulled aboard by the deckhands. Slowly the gap between the ship and the wharf widened. The grand majesty of the waves was now loosened from the bonds of the land and was again free to float in her natural element – the sea. It was at approximately 4:20 p.m. that the tugs maneuvered The Empress into midstream, the twin propellers at the stern slowly coming to life. The twenty-foot blades, four on each propeller, began to rotate, it being anticipated that these were the first of many thousands of revolutions, which would not cease until the mooring lines were secured in Liverpool. When the ship cast off, it was noticed that the ship’s cat, Emmy, was among the well-wishers that were at the dockside. Perhaps she offered a final farewell, waving her tail to say goodbye to her kittens which were still on board the ship. At this particular moment, it seems that the call of romance was more important to her than family responsibilities and the lure of the seas.
There was a blast from the whistle of The Empress, and orders were given from the ship’s bridge – half speed ahead. Within minutes the music of the Staff Band commenced from the promenade deck, the sound drifting effortlessly on the quiet afternoon air. At first the notes were soft although the harmonies were rich and melodious. As the ship further separated from the land, the volume of the music built until the sound of the crescendo encompassed the decks below and carried out over the water. The patriotic song, “O Canada” (not yet the official national anthem) was followed by a sentimental rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”
Then the hymn, “God be with you till we meet again,” was heard. Its words were to forever haunt the memories of the scene, expressing the thoughts and prayers of those who waved goodbye from ashore, as well as the passengers who lined the decks of The Empress on this gloriously sun-filled afternoon of Thursday, May 28, 1914. Many of those onboard had been singing along with the band, and the words to the music echoed back from Quebec’s heights.
Finally, the music faded, the words dying in the stillness of the mild air of early spring. There seemed to be a brief silent pause, before the sound of the ripple of the waves from the water filled the vacuum and carried the continuation of time onward. As the men ceased playing, the warm rays of the sun glistened on their shiny, silver instruments. Except in retrospect, no one knew the extreme poignancy of the scene in which they had participated.
As ever, the moments moved onward and the farewells were now in the past. The propellers continued the forward thrust of the ship into the river. As the dock receded, the buildings and sheds along the wharf dropped astern and faded from view. On this particularly glorious afternoon, while the passengers watched the shore glide past the vessel. The Empress was afloat with patriotic fervour, with British and Canadian pride being indistinguishable in those decades.
However, nothing in life is “forever more.” Events continued their relentless momentum as people strolled the decks, and enjoyed the final rays of the day’s warmth. The river’s landscape drifted peacefully past, and soon, on the cliffs above, the ornate turrets of the Chateau Frontenac Hotel pierced the bright blue of the sky, the river widening abruptly after the vessel sailed beyond the shadows of the heights of Quebec City. As the ship veered towards starboard, on the south shore the houses of Levis came more clearly into view, while the Ile D’Orleans loomed off the bow. In full view from the stern were the steel girders of the construction of the Pont de Quebec (Quebec Bridge), which would eventually span the width of the St. Lawrence. On the Beaupre Shore to the north, those with the keenest eyes detected the mist rising from Montmorency Falls. In the breathless afternoon, the mist rose straight into the air, the waterfall being over 100 feet higher than Niagara. To sail around the large island, The Empress steered her course towards the South Channel.
The sun was edging towards the west, silhouetting the Laurentian mountain on the north horizon. Ernie made his way to the stern where passengers crowded the rail to observe the magnificent panorama. The wind blew against his handsome face and the sun shone on his wind-blown hair. It was a moment he silently prayed would last forever. The sight was magnificent. In the far backdrop of the scene, to port and starboard, the hills of pine and spruce on the banks of the river etched a dark line alongside the mighty river. In the soft light hugging the water’s edge were the long, narrow farms with their family houses of ancient stone. The steeply sloped metal rooftops were painted bright colours of red, yellow, or green, and with their gabled windows, the homes reflected their French heritage. No two houses were identical, and every home was surrounded by well-tended gardens. It was a scene reminiscent of the days during the old colony of New France, as eternal and endearing as any portrait of rural Canada.
With the waning of the day, the sun continued its skyward progression and the temperatures slowly began to drop. Passengers drifted inside to explore the ship further or perform tasks which needed to be completed before the supper hour. Ernie had already tended his one small chore, having mailed the picture post card which he had carried with him in the inside pocket of his tunic. It was a blank card that he had purchased weeks earlier in Aurora, Ontario, when he was on a Staff Band trip. A brief message, along with his love, had been dutifully written on the card, and it had been inserted in the mail pouch when it went ashore before their departure from Quebec. It carried a one-penny green stamp with the profile of King George V in the upper, right-hand corner. The card was dated by the post office, “Quebec, 8 p.m., May 28, 1914.” It was addressed to Ernie’s wife Charlotte (Dot), and mentions his three children. It read:
My Dear Girl,
Just a line to say we have got fixed up all right in our cabins. We have an outside one with a port hole in it. Everything is spotlessly clean. We sail at 8 o’clock. It is now 3:30. Love and kisses to Baby, Hilda. Bernard. Keep a good heart.
Love from Ernie
Many such correspondences were mailed from either Quebec or Rimouski, and some of these would arrive in the days ahead. It was an eerie experience to receive a card from a loved one who had perished. Families were awed to receive the messages from those whom they cherished so dearly. Charlotte Aldridge was among them.