Those officials reports

It was 104 years ago today.

In the early morning hours of Friday, 29 May 1914, a thick fog rolled into the St. Lawrence River near Pointe-au-Père, Quebec.

It cut visibility on the river to essentially nothing.

And set the stage for the second worst maritime disaster in Canadian history… the eighth worst in all of the 20th century worldwide.1

A passenger ship called the Empress of Ireland had left the port in Quebec on the 28th of May, with a crew of 420 caring for the 1,057 passengers on board. It had dropped its pilot at Pointe-au-Père, called Father Point in English, and then gotten underway, bound for Liverpool, England.2

Empress of Britain

Another vessel, the Norwegian steamship, the Storstad, was en route from Sydney, Cape Breton, to Montreal, with a cargo of coal.3

Those in charge of each vessel had seen the lights of the other before the fog rolled in. Each claimed, afterwards, to have taken steps to ensure that the vessels would pass safely on the river despite the fog.4

But the steps that were taken — mostly, but not entirely, by the officer in charge of the Storstad — brought the two ships closer together, not farther apart.5

The Empress of Ireland was stopped in the river, and had just blown the second set of whistle blasts indicating it was stopped. Out of the fog, with no more than 100 feet separating the ships, the Storstad sliced through the fog — and through the side of the passenger vessel. At “a fast speed of about 10 knots,” it struck the passenger ship “amidships and penetrated through her steel decks to the extent of 15 to 20 feet.”6

The Empress of Ireland was doomed. It took only about 14 minutes to sink, taking 850 passengers and 172 crew to their deaths. Those passengers lost included 437 of the 609 adult men on board, 269 of the 310 women on board, and 128 of the 132 children on board.7

Now… think for a minute.

You’re a genealogist. And a research subject was on board one of those ships. Or related to someone who was.

Wouldn’t you just love to have the kind of detail set out above to add to the richness and depth of the story you’re telling?

The Legal Genealogist sure would… and that’s one of the reasons why this isn’t the first time that a particular resource has been emphasized here: the reports of official boards of inquiry into maritime disasters.8

Because just about everything set out above comes from, or can be found in, that report.

In this particular case, it’s the Report and Evidence of the Commission of Inquiry into the Loss of the British Steamship “Empress of Ireland”… Through Collision with the Norwegian Steamship “Storstad.” Quebec, June 1914. It was published in 1914 by the Canadian public printer, and then reprinted in its entirety in volume 16 of the 1915 Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada. You can find that volume containing the report digitized on HathiTrust Digital Library — all 615 pages of testimony, arguments and official conclusions.

And that’s hardly the only example of this kind of a report — they exist worldwide on all kinds of disasters. Check out, just as a few other examples, the report of the special U.S. federal commission into the June 1904 fire and beaching of the excursion steamer General Slocum in New York.9 Or the federal report on the sinking of the steamer Valencia near Vancouver Island in 1906.10 Or the Crown report on the disastrous launch-and-capsize of the steamer Daphne in Glasgow in 1883.11 Or the Ohio state report into the collapse of the Ashtabula River railroad bridge in 1876.12

About the only good thing to be said about so many horrible deaths in horrible circumstances is that they tend to produce lots of records. And these are but a few examples of the official inquiry reports that might exist — and the reasons why we definitely should inquire about any Board of Inquiry report for any event our ancestors may have been involved in.


SOURCES

Image: Wikimedia Commons, citing Library & Archives Canada.

  1. See generally Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “List of maritime disasters in the 20th century,” rev. 23 May 2018.
  2. Canadian Pacific R. Co. v. S.S. Storstad, 40 D.L.R. 600 (Exchequer Court of Canada, 1915).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Report and Evidence of the Commission of Inquiry into the Loss of the British Steamship “Empress of Ireland”… Through Collision with the Norwegian Steamship “Storstad.” Quebec, June 1914. (Ottawa: J. de L. Tache, Public Printer, 1914), reprinted in Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada (Session 1915) 16: 581, 599; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library (https://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 28 May 2018).
  6. Ibid., at 593.
  7. Ibid., at 611.
  8. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “A matter of inquiry,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Dec 2012 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 28 May 2018).
  9. Report of the United States Commission of Investigation upon the Disaster to the Steamer “General Slocum” (Washington D.C : U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1904); PDF version, digitized by U.S. Coast Guard (https://www.dco.uscg.mil/ : accessed 29 May 2018).
  10. Wreck of the Steamer Valencia: Report to the President of the Federal Commission of Investigation (Washington, D.C. : U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1906); digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 29 May 2018).
  11. Sir Edward J. Reed, Report on the “Daphne” Disaster (London : Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1883); digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 29 May 2018).
  12. Report of the Joint Committee Concerning the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster, under Joint Resolution of the General Assembly (Columbus, Nevins & Myers, State Printers : 1877); digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 29 May 2018).
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