Monday, August 30, 2004


"Empress of Ireland"


After being struck by a Norwegian freighter on May 29, 1914,
the passenger liner Empress of Ireland sank in the St. Lawrence River,
near Rimouski, killing 1,012 people.


Rimouski, Que.—Right about now, Rob Rondeau is crossing the prairie, rattling westward through the wheat fields in a red van stuffed with a valuable collection of Canada's heritage: Wreckage from the Empress of Ireland, the Canadian Pacific passenger liner that sunk to the bottom of the St. Lawrence River 90 years ago, killing 1,012 people.

He, and some others, are doing what the federal and Quebec governments won't. They're buying up historically valuable artifacts treasure-hunters have scavenged off Canada's worst-ever shipwreck for most of the last 30 years. Rondeau's aim is to keep the ship's remains from being bought up, piece by piece, by private collectors, who most likely would keep them in their homes or ship them off to the United States and Europe, where they would probably be lost to Canada's museums forever.

"This is our Titanic and I don't want to see Canada lose it," says the 40-year-old commercial diver, standing on a dock in Rimouski, leading to the wind-whipped waters of the St. Lawrence River. It's more than 45 kilometres wide here, a big and treacherous stretch of water that has swallowed dozens of vessels over the years.

"We've already lost a lot of history from this wreck," laments Rondeau, who retired from full-time commercial diving to concentrate on documenting and preserving shipwrecks. "There's stuff from the Empress of Ireland that's disappeared into basements up and down this coast and been hidden in warehouses all over the world. Somebody's got to do something to save what we still can, while we still can. This is a forgotten ship, a forgotten part of our history."

A powerfully built man, Rondeau's got the thick, calloused fingers deep-sea divers develop from 20 years of lugging around heavy oxygen tanks and working wrenches far beneath the ocean, keeping oil rigs afloat and undersea pipelines flowing. But he's also a trained marine archaeologist and displays a delicate touch as he holds a perfectly preserved porcelain plate, from the Empress of Ireland's first-class dining room, which he is packing in bubble wrap for the trip to Alberta, destined for a museum exhibit.

He deposits it into his van, now filling up with other treasures from the Empress' last voyage, which he's bought from local Quebec divers who have "worked" the rusting wreck. There's the brass radio phone on which the crew likely sent out its calls for help; he's paid $1,000 for a wine bottle, purchased the finger bowls, candle holders and a lasagna dish from the last meal in the wood panelled first-class dining room. There's even a brass bugle, from the ship's dance band, which unlike the Titanic's, didn't have time to strike up as the ship went down.

"It's a long drive to get these out West," says Rondeau, thumping shut his 15-year-old van's door, ready to start his dawn-to-dusk trek to Alberta. "It takes me 4 1/2 days from Rimouski to Alberta. That's about $800 in gas each way. I sleep in the van at truck stops. So I never actually let the artifacts out of my sight. And I've got my shotgun in the back. They'll be safe."

On May 29, 1914, people were understandably more worried about lost lives than the lost treasures left on the Empress of Ireland.

Shortly before 2 a.m., having steamed past Rimouski on a six-day voyage bound for Liverpool, the 548-foot-long Empress found itself facing down a Norwegian freighter, the Storstad, coming upriver laden with a cargo of coal. After the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, caution prevailed aboard ocean liners like the Empress, which had been outfitted with extra lifeboats. Captain Henry George Kendall anticipated a routine passing in the night.

Then, one of the St. Lawrence's thick and unpredictable "phantom fogs" descended on the river. Minutes passed, with each ship blindly feeling its way through the mist, sounding their foghorns. It wasn't enough.

Without today's radar or ship-to-ship communications, the snub-nosed prow of the coal freighter suddenly emerged from the mist. There was no time for the Empress to veer out of the way as the Storstad sliced through its side. It was so clean and quick a cut through the Empress's steel hull, some survivors reported feeling only a nudge and chose to remain in their bunks.

But a gaping hole had been punched into the ocean liner. The cold, black water of the St. Lawrence flooded in at more than 200,000 litres per second. The ship rolled to its side, becoming a death trap for those below. Within 14 minutes, at 2:09 a.m., the Empress sank, killing all but 465 of its 1,477 passengers.

When divers went down a few months later, to recover bodies and salvage the millions in gold and silver in the ship's safe, they were horrified to see the heads of people sticking out of the portholes. To escape the rising black water, passengers had tried to wedge their bodies through the narrow, brass portholes, the last part of the ship offering passage to the surface before she sank 37 metres to the bottom of the St. Lawrence.

News of the disaster flashed around Canada and the world. But too soon, it seemed to drift out of most people's minds.

The Titanic, sunk by an iceberg on its maiden voyage, had been a bigger tragedy and settled in the public mind of what could go wrong at sea. The Canadian Pacific, which made a fortune on its reputation of offering safe passage across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, did its best to downplay the sinking. And the world was on the brink of war, offering new tragedies for Canadians to ponder.

"I only started to get involved in this when I was watching Peter Mansbridge, on the CBC," says Marion Kelch, a retired schoolteacher from Czar, Alta., who is leading the fight to save the artifacts. "There was this report about somebody selling off the biggest collection of Empress artifacts to someone in the United States. And I just thought, `This is wrong. How can we allow this priceless history to leave Canada?'"

Kelch struck up the Empress of Ireland Artifacts Committee, beginning a grassroots campaign that soon attracted people from across the country. "This was an immigration ship," she explains, "so there are people all over Canada, especially the West, who have descendants who sailed on her to Canada. It's a ship, and a story, that touches many families."

Indeed, the Empress tragedy is still remembered each year by the Salvation Army, which lost as many as 200 members of its Toronto band who were on their way to Britain.

"This is part of the fabric of our land," says Karl Larson, who works in the Army's heritage archives. "It's important that they remember this and important that we protect this history for the future. I think these artifacts should be in the Museum of Civilization."

Kelch quickly found out that the collection destined for the U.S. belonged to Philippe Beaudry, one of a small group of elite Quebec divers who started diving the Empress wreck decades ago, long before the 1999 decision by the Quebec government to outlaw treasure hunting on the wreck. It was a time before "archaeological sensitivity," when divers would emerge from the river, with 60-year-old bottles of champagne from the Empress' wine cellar, some of which they would crack open and guzzle in celebration.

Beaudry, amongst the best of the era's divers, managed to amass what is considered the most impressive Empress collection — more than 500 artifacts, including the prize of every major shipwreck: The brass bell.

A few years ago, Beaudry says, he felt the pinch of retirement looming. It was time to collect on his bounty and those years of diving. He decided he would sell his collection, now resting in a storage depot outside of Montreal, to a U.S. collector for $1.5 million. The bell alone would be appraised at a cool $1 million.

After years of the wreck being pillaged with little protest, the prospective sale ignited a firestorm. Ottawa initially blocked it, requiring that Beaudry apply for an export permit and give Canadian museums the first chance to buy his collection.

To encourage that, the federal government said it would kick in $750,000 to purchase the collection, providing that the Musée de la Mer, a museum near Rimouski with a small collection of Empress of Ireland artifacts, would raise the other half.

"We couldn't get the money from the Quebec government," said Annemarie Bourassa, the museum's assistant director. "It's strange. The Quebec government was willing to pay for Maurice Richard (collectibles) that were being sold to the United States. But they didn't help us with this."

That meant Beaudry was free to sell to the U.S. But by then, to the delight of Kelch, the sale had fallen through.
Today, Beaudry is trying to sell the collection off piece by piece to people in Canada, and he chuckles at the irony that Kelch and her committee are now his biggest customer. So far, Kelch has managed to raise $25,000 to buy a few dozen pieces that she plans to put on a "dinner on the Empress" display that she will take on a western tour that will end at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

"I'm doing this all out of my own pocket," says the 63-year-old Kelch, who hopes to set up a public foundation. "I'm hoping to raise awareness and maybe embarrass the government into doing something."
Beaudry isn't optimistic that will work.

"The best thing I could do is put these artifacts back under a couple of thousand feet of water," he grumbles. "Believe me, the other divers around Rimouski have sold off thousands of artifacts to the United States. But because I have the best collection, it's been nothing but trouble for me. I risked my life putting this together and now I can't find a museum in Canada that wants to buy it."

The Empress of Ireland wreck, which has claimed the lives of at least six divers, can be a dangerous obsession, as Jean-Pierre Bouillon well knows.

On his first dive, he got tangled in the steel cables that still hang from the wreck, an underwater spider web hidden by the total blackness at the river bottom. He barely freed himself before his air ran out. On his last dive, in 1991, he was hit by the bends, the deadly build-up of nitrogen caused by surfacing too quickly. He was rushed to a decompression chamber, saving his life, but his legs are now partially paralyzed.

Leaning on a cane as he stands on the porch of his house, he can see the white buoy almost seven kilometres away that marks where the Empress went down. Boullion admits that over the years he was one of the divers who took the most out of the Empress. He unearthed bottles of 1907 champagne, still chilled by the St.

Lawrence. He banged out dozens of the ship's heavy, brass portholes, selling them to collectors, "but only to people who respected them, understood they were holy things."

Today, however, he's happy to see that the ship is protected. Things were getting out of hand.

"There were divers who wanted to come and blast the wreck, to get at things inside it," says Bouillon, who now runs a charter service for divers. "That would have destroyed the wreck. Now it's against the law to take things away."

But people still do, he concedes. This week, divers discovered a skull lodged inside a lifeboat has gone missing. His fear is that somebody has stolen it, as a gruesome souvenir.

"That's the dark side of diving," says Rondeau, who is meeting with Bouillon about buying some of his artifacts. "There are people who collect skulls. A guy in Florida offered me $5,000 if I got him one. It's pretty awful."
After his years of ripping things out of the Empress, Bouillon has now become something of a cultural nationalist himself. He wants to sell part of his own collection to Kelch's committee, saying "it would be good to let other Canadians see these things. It might bring them out here, to Rimouski, to see where it happened."

Opening up his basement door, Bouillon takes Rondeau into a cellar full of bottles and portholes from the Empress. He sells one blue-green bottle to Rondeau for $150, considered a bargain. A little later, Bouillon has a friend bring over another brass porthole that causes Rondeau's eyes to light up.

"It's perfect for our exhibit," he gushes.

But there's a price: $7,000 (U.S.).

"That's not bad," says Rondeau, already planning another trip to load up his van with history. "I'll be back in Rimouski next month. Maybe then we'll be able to pick this porthole up, too."

See article here.

Side scan sonar here.


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