Three, four, five feet of silt swirl around his waist, the diver’s finned feet are invisible in the murk. He flicks them, floats up a bit, and waits before delving in to find plates, saucers, and other memories.
Bart Malone remembers diving the wreck of RMS Empress of Ireland, despite the fact it’s been 15 years since the 65-year-old was down in the waters of the St. Lawrence River. There’s a strong current, and the waters of the St. Lawrence are always cold, even in late August when he would make the yearly week-long visit.
“Once you got inside, and you start moving stuff around, you lost your visibility,” Malone said. “It’s silty because you have the St. Lawrence River and the wash off land. You had a real fine silt, that was what was nice about it, the silt also protected the artifacts.”
As a souvenir diver, the New Jersey man had no desire to return after the Canadian government closed the Empress to salvaging.
“I had no need to go back,” he said. “I dive shipwrecks for the purpose of restoring artifacts. I’m not a sightseer.”
“I was recovering historic artifacts. Even the Canadians don’t know anything about the Empress of Ireland,” said Malone, who is also a curator at the not-for-profit Museum of New Jersey Maritime History. “That’s Canada’s greatest marine tragedy … If I don’t bring them up and I don’t restore them nobody sees them.”
On May 29, 1914 in the wee hours of the morning the Empress of Ireland was struck by Norwegian coal freighter SS Storstad while steaming on the St. Lawrence River in fog. In 14 minutes, the eight-year-old ocean liner was gone, taking the lives 840 passengers (eight more than the Titanic) and a total of 1,073 lives. There were 465 survivors.
“It sank in 14 minutes in the middle of the night. There’s no romantic hour-and-a-half on deck,” said Chris Klausen, an avid collector of Empress items. War broke out a few weeks later, replacing headlines of death at sea with those of death overseas.
Klausen has created an impromptu Empress of Ireland museum in a walk in closet in his home in North Saanich.
On its shelves are relics from the wreckage, trinkets that made the voyage in the eight years she travelled the seas prior to the fatal night, and tons of postcards memorializing the liner.
“I was always interested in the Titanic, like everybody,” explained Klausen, who has a multitude of Malone-found pieces in his collection.
While reading a book on shipwrecks 11 years ago, Klausen came across the tale of the Empress of Ireland and got curious, since he’d never heard of it. He hopped online, and discovered some inexpensive wreckage memorabilia. For $78 he got a creamer, salt pot and sugar bowl — and a new passion.
He’s careful about the items among his collection. Some were simply on board, like the old pair of specs worn aboard the ship by a young lad making the trip to Canada on a voyage well before the final night. Others are memorabilia salvaged by divers after the tragedy.
“I don’t want to carry personal items from the wreck,” he said. “If I die and somebody took my wedding ring, I’d be upset. If somebody took a glass I drank out of, I wouldn’t be upset.”
Along his shelves are plates from first, second, and third class; cutlery, grape scissors, a leather crumb-catcher, an old New York Times announcing the tragedy boldly across the front page; and many postcards.
One postcard bears the image of the Empress of Ireland on one side and a short message on the other — signed ‘your old aunty’. The postmark makes it distinctive. It was written and mailed the day before the sinking, and refers to an ‘old aunty’ heading to the boat that night with the expectation of breakfast on board in the morning.
Though he’s from New York and works in California, Klausen and his family live in North Saanich, where he keeps the memorabilia. Klausen feels it’s Canadian culture and should remain here.
“This is something that is uniquely Canadian. I want Canadians to be aware of their Titanic,” he said, pointing out that 500,000 Canadians can trace their family tree back to the Empress of Ireland to settle in Canada. “I’m trying to repatriate the artifacts back to Canada. I feel they should be here.”
•The ship’s cat Emmy, a loyal orange tabby who had never once missed a voyage, repeatedly tried to escape the ship near departure on May 28, 1914. The crew could not coax her aboard and the Empress departed without her. It was reported that Emmy watched the ship sail away from Quebec City sitting on the roof of the shed at Pier 27, which would later become a place for the dead pulled from the rive
•Artifacts from the wreckage and the history of the vessel, her passengers and crew are on display in the Empress of Ireland Pavilion in Rimouski, Quebec.
•While no orchestra performed, as it did during the sinking of the Titanic, in 14 minutes there was still time for stories of heroism.
“In 14 minutes it was truly survival of the fittest, but you did have stories,” Klausen said.
“You had the grand staircase, on the Empress of Ireland tipping over because the ship capsized and you’ve got people with ropes and fire hoses pulling the women up the staircase. Even in that brief 14 minutes there were people giving their lifebelts away. People doing everything they could.”
As the ship fell to her side, people outside pulled others out through portholes to escape the enclosed spaces.
“The hero of the disaster was from Victoria,” Klausen said. “The ships doctor, Dr. Grant is from Victoria and he was regarded as the hero because he saved so many lives once they got on the rescue ship.”