Sunken treasures: The Empress of Ireland and the Onandaga

RIMOUSKI, Que. – The Empress of Ireland, before May 29, 1914, was known as one of the most luxurious, fastest and quietest ocean liners. After May 29, 1914, she became known as Canada’s worst naval disaster. Songs and books have been written about her. I mentioned her in an SOS article.

It was the Empress that drew us to Pointe au Pere, just a few minutes east of Rimouski and 12 kilometres upriver from where the ship went down.

Pointe au Pere under cloudy skies, seen from the top of the old lighthouse.
Pointe au Pere under cloudy skies, seen from the top of the old lighthouse.

We went to the English showing of a 3D not-doc – “This is not a documentary. This is our history” – which means we had the theatre almost to ourselves. The half-hour film is narrated by the ship’s photographer and a very creepy ghost girl who walks into and through the pictures. Some of the show is laughably corny; other bits have such disturbing images I’m glad Trev’s a teen – I wouldn’t bring a younger kid here.

Two years after the sinking of the Titanic, the Empress boasted more than enough lifeboats and lifejackets to go around. The crew had done a successful safety-device run-through before setting sail. But she sank so fast – in 14 minutes – after being rammed by another boat that there was no time to get the heavy lifeboats down. Some passengers were killed by falling lifeboats.

Just 465 souls survived, many of them crew; 1,012 died.

With that lovely story fresh in our minds (one of us might have had damp eyes), we walked a few hundred metres and nearly a full century to the Onandaga.

The Onandaga
The Onandaga

Built during the Cold War and retired in 2000, the Onandaga is the only submarine in Canada that is open to the public. A self-guided audio tour starts in the butt end, where we learn that since this vessel was never used in combat, the submariners used the aft torpedo holds to store their beer.

It’s a big ship, but it’s skinny and had a crew of 70, so every available space was used for extra storage, including three of the four showers. Only the officers and galley crew bothered with their 20-second soakings. Submariners gave off “a whiff of teamwork,” but with so many smells on the diesel-electric sub, it didn’t take long before everyone just got used to it. So they say.

Working on submarine very serious business.
Working on submarine very serious business.
Melani finds beauty everywhere. See: Daisies on a submarine.
Melani finds beauty everywhere. See: Daisies on a submarine.

The Onandaga was used in NATO fact-finding missions during the Cold War, but never engaged in combat. The crew was, however, asked (in the late ’90s, I believe) to keep an eye on a group of drug runners.

They silently gathered information and when they got the word: “We’ve got ’em, let ’em know we’re here,” they surfaced, scaring the bejeezus out of the smugglers, who, in their panic, leaped into the water, rifles and all.

“This was a good day,” Trevor said, after we’d done the Empress, the Onandaga and been up the 128 steps to the top of the lighthouse, where the lovely Nadia taught us how to work the light.

Learning and excitement all in one day? What’s that about?

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2 thoughts on “Sunken treasures: The Empress of Ireland and the Onandaga

  1. Isn’t the Onandaga a B&B as well? Oh BTW, *jealous*!! We didn’t go in, owing to time constraints, but I have almost exactly the same picture of the outside. Hee!!

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  2. You can spend the night there, but it’s crazy expensive. I’m not even a little claustrophobic, but I’m not sure how well I’d do in there for an entire night.

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