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David Bly: Remember the tragedy of ‘Canada’s Titanic’

Chris Klausen is used to answering the phone and hearing: “Are you the Empress of Ireland guy?” He doesn’t mind.

Chris Klausen is used to answering the phone and hearing: “Are you the Empress of Ireland guy?” He doesn’t mind.

“My goal each day is to teach someone about the Empress of Ireland,” said Klausen, who divides his time between Victoria and Los Angeles, where he is assistant director of the TV show The Big Bang Theory.

The Empress of Ireland was a Canadian Pacific ocean liner that sank in the St. Lawrence River near Rimouski, Que., on May 29, 1914, after colliding with the Norwegian collier SS Storstad. Of the 1,477 passengers and crew aboard the ship, 1,012 died. It was Canada’s worst maritime disaster, one comparable to the sinking of the Titanic, but it has received relatively little attention in history books.

Klausen became interested in the Empress of Ireland 14 years ago when he read about it in a book on shipwrecks and began collecting artifacts from the ship. He said the disaster did not garner more attention because it was overshadowed by two similar incidents, the sinking two years before of the Titanic and its complement of glitterati, and the torpedoing of the Lusitania in 1915, which eventually led to the U.S. becoming involved in the First World War.

While popular history might have overlooked the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, relatives of those who were on the ship that night did not forget. They welcome the growing interest in the ship and its final voyage, sparked by various centennial observations.

“It brings them a sort of closure,” said Klausen, who has spoken with many people whose lives were touched one way or another by the Empress of Ireland, which is being commemorated with the release of Canada Post stamps, a pair of silver coins from the Royal Canadian Mint and exhibits and memorials around the country.

One of those is the display at the Maritime Museum of B.C. featuring Klausen’s collection, which officially opened Thursday. Called Canada’s Titanic — The Empress of Ireland, the exhibit continues until Oct. 20.

It’s a busy time for Klausen, who has been part of events at the museum as well as leading tours of Ross Bay Cemetery, which has links with the Empress of Ireland. At the top of the list is the grave of Dr. James F. Grant, who was the ship’s doctor aboard the liner when it sank. He was hailed as a hero for his efforts to care for survivors in the days following the shipwreck, after being hauled out of the water himself.

Grant was born in Wellington, now part of Nanaimo, in 1887, and studied medicine at McGill University in Montreal. His stint aboard the Empress of Ireland was his first job after his internship. He related his account of the disaster in an article in the Daily Colonist on June 28, 1914 (worth reading in the online archives of the newspaper at

“The survivors united in laying such honour on the shoulders of Dr. James F. Grant,” wrote Logan Marshall in The Tragic Story of the Empress of Ireland, “the ship’s doctor who calmed the terror-stricken, kept hope alive in the breasts of those who felt bereaved of loved ones; who quieted the ravings of those whom the shock had, for a time, made insensible; who went about among the rescued and gave them treatment, not only for their physical injuries, but for the awful mental shocks which had been endured.”

Grant returned to B.C., where he practised medicine in Victoria. He seldom discussed his Empress of Ireland experiences. He died in New Westminster in 1947 at the age of 59 and is buried in Ross Bay Cemetery.

Klausen says it’s gratifying to see the attention now being paid to Grant and to the Empress of Ireland. But he thinks that attention should go beyond the vessel’s demise.

“The legacy of this ship is so mixed,” he said. “It had eight wonderful, memorable years and then 14 awful minutes [between the time of the collision and its sinking].”

The sinking of the Empress of Ireland affected the lives of many people in B.C. and across the country, but its previous voyages touched even more — it brought 117,000 immigrants to Canada.

This is a piece of history worth remembering.

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