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Quebec historian obtains photos of salvage operation for Empress of Ireland shipwreck

MONTREAL — The two photos that popped up for sale on eBay appeared at first glance to be nothing more than a piece of Quebec maritime nostalgia: men on a wharf in the early 20th century, with a caption reading simply "lighthouse, Gaspé 1910."
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Historian David Saint-Pierre shows photos of the salvage operation from the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in 1914 at his home, Thursday, January 12, 2023 in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — The two photos that popped up for sale on eBay appeared at first glance to be nothing more than a piece of Quebec maritime nostalgia: men on a wharf in the early 20th century, with a caption reading simply "lighthouse, Gaspé 1910."

But historian David Saint-Pierre, who was sent the link by a friend, immediately knew they were something more. 

The lighthouse wasn't in Gaspé, but was rather the Pointe-au-Père, or Father Point, lighthouse near Rimouski, Que. And the men on the wharf were British sailors brought to aid in the salvage operation after Canada's deadliest maritime disaster: the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland in 1914.

"As soon as I saw the two photos, I knew that that scene was related to salvage on the Empress of Ireland," said Saint-Pierre, a maritime historian who has written a book about the shipwreck.

The 170-metre-long ocean liner provided passenger service from the United Kingdom to Canada until it collided with a Norwegian vessel on the St. Lawrence River on May 29, 1914. It took just 14 minutes to sink, resulting in the death of 1,012 of the 1,477 passengers.

Saint-Pierre, who grew up in Rimouski, said identifying the photos was easy because the Empress sinking was the only time British sailors are known to have visited the area. He said the large buoys shown in the photos, used to mark the site of the wreck, provided another clue.

However, Saint-Pierre's detective work was only beginning. He noticed the image of the back of the photos had bits of paper attached, suggesting they had been pulled from an album.

He managed to track down the seller, who was in Tennessee, and agreed to purchase the entire album, which contains hundreds of old maritime photos. Of those, dozens contain images of the Empress of Ireland, including a rare photo of a body being removed from the water.

Saint-Pierre declined to say how much he paid for the album, although he said it was "expensive" for him as an individual. But he said the album's historical significance justified the price.

There was an agonizing wait to receive the album, including six weeks when it was lost in the mail. But in the end, the album contained more than 500 photos, including some 56 that were related to the Empress of Ireland. While a few had been previously published as souvenir postcards, "the vast majority of them had never been published or seen before," he said.

Since receiving the album at the end of 2021, Saint-Pierre said he's spent much time poring over their contents. The photos have taught him many previously unknown facts about the salvage, including the names of many of the men who took part.

They have also helped him to learn more about the technical nature of the operation, including the fact that it was likely the first salvage effort in the world to install a decompression chamber on its diving boat.

He also learned that Ralph Stratton Blydenburgh, the former director of the Yankee Salvage Association of New York, was not only the album's original owner but also the person who appeared in a widely published photo of a man posing with silver bars salvaged from the ship.

Saint-Pierre said the photos in the album will be included in a new book he's writing about the salvage operation. But ultimately, he intends to donate the historical documents to a maritime museum.

He hopes the album sheds a little more light on a disaster that remains relatively unknown. 

"It's a bit hard to understand sometimes how the tragic death of more than 1,000 people in 15 minutes right here in the St. Lawrence River has been so forgotten," he said. The wreck occurred near the start of the First World War, which despite the high death count limited the attention it received.

There has also been far less historical research conducted on the Empress than on its much better-known counterpart, the Titanic, Saint-Pierre said.

The album, he said, proves "there are still lots of things to learn."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2023.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version described the men shown in the original photos for sale on eBay as British soldiers. It also said a historic photo depicted Ralph Stratton Blydenburgh posing with gold bars. In fact, the men shown in the photos were British sailors, and The bars in the historic image were made of silver.