Creepy History: The Other Titanics

If you think of a shipwreck, it’ll likely be the most famous shipwreck in the world; the RMS Titanic. She holds the peacetime records for largest loss of life, largest ship ever wrecked to remain on the ocean floor, and has inspired more artistic works than any other ship. The loss was dramatic in every sense. The Titanic was the largest ship afloat when it was lost. 1,517 people died, many of whom were the height of celebrity for the day. Huge amounts of property and money were lost to individuals as well as to the company that operated the ship.

Some time before the sinking, before he was appointed to the Titanic, Captain Edward Smith ironically said: “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that”. In the aftermath of the sinking, maritime law was overhauled. Ships were required to carry lifeboats for every person on board, twenty-four hour radio watches were established, ship design was adjusted for safety, and a host of other measures were introduced to ensure that a disaster at sea would never again result in such a considerable loss of life.

Despite these measures, there were more disasters to come. Some of them within a couple of years of the Titanic and some on a scale that could rival her. All of them had the updated safety measures and in most cases they had something the Titanic could only dream of; a ship on hand to help. Their losses raise interesting questions about how safety was updated. What could have saved the Titanic evidently didn’t save these other ships, some of whom are even known colloquially by a nickname that invariably references the larger wreck. None of them would reach the same level of fame as the Titanic and most of them have been forgotten entirely.

“Canada’s Titanic”: RMS Empress of Ireland

The Empress of Ireland was an ocean liner operating along the North Atlantic route between Liverpool and Quebec City. She had been in service since 1906 and was such a popular choice for passengers and immigrants moving between Canada and the United Kingdom that her maiden passage was overbooked. Over a hundred passengers had to remain in Liverpool and wait for another liner. She had a capacity for around 1,550 passengers and up to 500 crew and by 1913 had been upgraded to include all the necessary changes required after the sinking of the Titanic.

On the 29th May 1914, the Empress set out from Quebec City, navigating the Saint Lawrence River which led to the North Atlantic Ocean. While on her normal course, she sighted the masthead lights of the SS Storstad, a Norweigan cargo ship carrying coal at 01:38. The two ships acknowledged each other but within minutes of the sighting, thick fog rolled in, obscuring both vessels. Both ships resorted to using their fog whistles to determine their location but at 01:55, seventeen minutes after their initial sightings, the Storstad appeared through the fog on a collision course, striking the Empress just a minute later.

The Empress of Ireland during a routine cruise

Both ships were damaged but while the Storstad remained afloat, the Empress was left with a sixteen-foot hole on her starboard side allowing sixty thousand gallons of water a second to flow into the ship. The resulting displacement caused the Empress to lurch heavily to starboard and settle quickly by the stern. Events unfolded so quickly that there was no chance to close the watertight doors allowing water to rush through the ship unhindered. Due to the late hour, most passengers were in bed and those residing on the lower decks were immediately drowned along with any staff working there.

Those on the upper decks were woken by the impact and able to make their way to the boat deck where lifeboats were being launched but within a few minutes the list was so severe that those launched shattered against the side of the Empress sending the occupants into the freezing waters. Further efforts were hampered when the power failed, plunging the boat deck into darkness. Although there were enough lifeboats for everybody aboard, only five were successfully launched.

The Storstad which had not received as much damage, immediately launched their own lifeboats and returned to the scene to pick up those they could from the water. They recovered almost five hundred survivors, twenty of whom died of hyperthermia later that day.

At 02:05, the ship lurched again, this time rolling to starboard which allowed those who had survived below deck to climb out of the open portholes. A further five minutes later, the ship rose briefly by the bow before foundering. The ship had enough lifeboats and nearby support but where the Titanic sank in four hours, the Empress sank within fourteen minutes. There simply wasn’t any time to evacuate the ship. The nearest radio operator had notified nearby ships of the sinking and a pilot ship Eureka arrived an hour after the sinking, retrieving a further hundred and fifty survivors from the water. By the time a second ship, the SS Lady Evelyn, arrived shortly before four a.m. there were no more survivors to be recovered.

A photograph taken shortly after the disaster, showing the extent of the damage received by the Storstad

The Captain of the Empress, Henry Kendall, had ordered lifeboats to be launched immediately after the collision and it was the Empress‘ lifeboat drills, another post-Titanic mandate, that allowed for them to load and launch the few that they did so quickly. While giving these instructions, Captain Kendall was thrown from the ship and into the water. He was picked up by a nearby lifeboat from which he directed the rescue operations until they could no longer find survivors and they returned to the Storstad. Upon boarding the other ship, Kendall went straight to the bridge and said to the Captain of the Storstad: “You have sunk my ship!”

Of the 1,477 people aboard, 1,012 people died in the sinking. The loss was comparable to that of the Titanic and in the aftermath, the Empress was often referred to as “Canada’s Titanic”. A larger percentage of passengers died on the Empress compared to the Titanic and many of the first-class passengers were famous. While the loss and the subsequent inquiry made it into the news, the sinking was entirely overshadowed by the outbreak of the First World War two months later. Within months of surviving the Empress’s sinking, some passengers found themselves on the front lines fighting in France from which they would not return.

“The Blue Collar Titanic”: SS Eastland

The SS Eastland is an anomaly when it comes to shipwrecks; the ship was still in dock when it sank, in fine weather, with calm seas. It isn’t a particularly well-known disaster and even at the time, the media gave more coverage to the subsequent refloating of the ship than the actual sinking. It has been suggested that because the victims were, with the exception of five crew members, entirely working-class people and their families, the majority of which were European immigrants, they were overlooked.

The Eastland was launched in 1903 working as a passenger ship on the Great Lakes, based in Chicago. In the coming years, she would change hands often and was the subject of frequent structural changes. Because these changes were implemented by different owners, they weren’t undertaken with consideration of the changes that had already been made. As such, the Eastland had a history of listing incidents and on one occasion had almost capsized. There were two significant changes that were thought to be the largest contributing factors to the disaster. The first was the addition of lifeboats in 1913, and the addition of a concrete floor which added between fifteen and twenty tons of weight. As both these changes occurred on upper decks the Eastland was extremely top-heavy and the passenger capacity was lowered to a little over 2,500.

The Eastland disaster occurred on the 24th July 1914 when she, and five other ships, had been hired by the Western Electric Company to ferry employees and their families from the works in Cicero, Illinois to the company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. The picnic was a significant event for the people attending it. On the morning in question, encouraged not to wait for the last boat, passengers gathered at 6:30 am. Within half an hour 2,500 passengers had embarked on the first ship; the Eastland.

The harbourmaster and his assistant attended the ships before they departed and notified Captain Harry Pederson that the Eastland was listing slightly to port and would need to be corrected before they would be allowed to leave. With a light rain starting, many of the passengers went below deck and some noted that their steps were uneven. Chairs were starting to slip and the band playing were struggling to keep their positions. The crew were already at work trying to right the ship and for a brief moment, the harbourmaster noted that some progress had been made. But the ship was righted only for a moment. At 7:28, the Eastland lurched heavily to port but this time “kept on going.” She turned completely in the water, but because of the shallow river, she didn’t sink. Instead, she rested on her side.

Those on the upper decks were thrown clear of the ship into the water. Because the ship was still docked, help was immediately on hand. The tug Kenosha had already secured itself to the Eastland, but the captain apparently recognised the danger moments before it happened. He had the ship unattach from the Eastland and instead secured to the dock, providing an immediate bridge between the ship and dry land. Likewise, the assistant harbourmaster called emergency services seconds before the disaster occurred. Dock workers and those waiting to board the other ships moved quickly to throw crates and other objects to the survivors in the river. The Roosevelt which had already been loaded for the picnic launched its lifeboats, as did the steamship Petoskey. A number of small boats including tugs and fire boats moved to pull people from the water. Unfortunately, despite the rapid response, many of those who had gone into the river couldn’t swim and drowned before help could reach them. Even more unfortunate were those who could swim but were struck by the barrels and crates being thrown to assist them.

The Eastland ‘turned turtle’. The tug at the top of the picture is the Kenosha still taking passengers off

Below deck, the situation was even more grim. When the ship made its initial lurch, a large number of passengers attempted to reach the upper deck. The most obvious means of escape was the main staircase but a combination of the weight upon it and the sudden displacement as the ship rolled meant the staircase collapsed, preventing all but a few from successfully reaching the relative safety of the upper decks, and crushing those making the attempt.

The majority of those below deck were flung violently at the side of the ship, crushed either by the other bodies or the ship’s furniture which landed on top of them. Those who survived the initial roll attempted to climb out but many were caught in the resulting crush and suffocated. Then the water started rushing in and within minutes hundreds of the initial survivors had drowned.

About two hundred people had managed to hang on to the ship and were gradually taken off by the Kenosha. Meanwhile, welders had arrived on the scene and climbed onto the Eastland with torches to cut through the bulkheads in order to reach the survivors trapped below deck. When Captain Pederson saw them breaching the hull, he immediately moved to stop them. The captain and fifteen of his crew were arrested for obstructing the work of the rescuers but this was probably for their own safety. Already angered by what had happened, a mob descended upon them, calling for justice for the bodies being pulled from the ship. The police managed to push the crowd back but not before one man broke through and punched Pederson in the face.

Rescue operations continued throughout the night but it soon became clear that the police and volunteers were retrieving the dead rather than rescuing survivors. One of the warehouses on the dock and the Roosevelt were transformed into makeshift morgues, and bodies were steadily moved by a constant stream of hearses. In total, 844 people died along with several rescuers, including Peter Boyle who dove into the water from the deck of the Petoskey to help those who had been flung from the Eastland’s deck.

The Unknown Titanic of the North: SS Princess Sophia

Between 1910 and 1911 the Canadian Pacific Railway had a fleet of four ships built to ferry passengers along the Inside Passage; a sheltered coastal route connecting Alaska, Western British Columbia, and Northwestern Washington State. The Princess Sophia was one of these ships, completing her maiden voyage in July 1912. The route was relatively safe given its shelter, protecting it from the more severe ocean weather.

It was a popular route and the Princess Sophia boasted comfortable facilities, especially in first class. She could carry up to 500 passengers but for her final passage she carried just over half that; 267 passengers and 73 crew.

On the evening of the 23rd October 1918 carrying a handful of well-known figures but mostly families of servicemen, miners, and winter crews having ended their seasonal work, the SS Princess Sophia departed from Skagway, Alaska. Due to leave at 7:00 pm but actually departing at 22:10, Captain Leonard Locke proceeded at high speeds despite bad weather.

Four hours later, the ship ran into even worse weather. Heavy snow and strong winds reduced visibility to zero but still the captain did not reduce speed. Unable to navigate by sight, the crew resorted to sounding the ship’s whistle and calculating their location based on how long it took the echo to return. The Sophia was off course and at 02:00 she ran aground on the Vanderbilt Reef, an unlit rock invisible during high tide regardless of weather conditions. The crash ripped a large hole into Sophia’s hull but she didn’t sink. Instead, she came to rest on the reef.

While the crew worked to send distress calls and secure the ship, the passengers began donning their life jackets. One woman, convinced of her impending death, went as far as dressing in a black mourning dress. The distress call was picked up and within fifteen minutes of the collision, rescue operations were being organised.

Almost twenty other boats and ships of varying sizes converged at the reef to assist the Sophia, the two most significant to the story were the USS Cedar, the largest ship on site, and the King and Winge, a much smaller and less well-equipped fishing schooner. The two were commanded by Captain Ledbetter and Captain Miller respectively, with Captain Ledbetter taking control of the rescue efforts given that their ship was the only one who could directly communicate with the Sophia.

Despite the presence of so many ships, the weather conditions prevented any kind of rescue attempt. The Sophia couldn’t launch lifeboats or they would have been smashed against the same reef that held the larger ship. Likewise, the other ships couldn’t launch their own boats to take passengers off. With no immediate opportunity to abandon ship, Captain Locke determined to wait for high tide at 5:00 to float Sophia off the reef which would allow them to safely launch their lifeboats.

Unfortunately, high tide came and the ship remained firmly entrenched upon the reef. A brief lull in conditions allowed lifeboats to be launched towards the Sophia but Captain Locke warned them off and sent them back. He preferred to wait for the weather to break completely which would have allowed for a safer rescue. But the weather didn’t improve and by 9:00 am gale force winds had returned to the reef, forcing the rescue ships to retreat. The Cedar and the King and Winge took shelter nearby and stuck together in an attempt to devise another rescue plan.

Captains Ledbetter and Miller decided that they would position the Cedar in such a way as to shelter the smaller schooner which would then sail in close to the Princess Sophia and take off the passengers. But while the two men were drawing up a plan, Cedar received a final distress call; “ship foundering; come at once.”

Both ships attempted to return but the weather forced them back. The Cedar managed to clear their shelter but within half an hour was forced to give up the attempt. Visibility was so low that they themselves were in danger. At 17:20 the Cedar received the last message sent by the Princess Sophia; ‘For God’s sake hurry – the water is coming in my room’. But the Cedar could do nothing and fought its way back to shelter, guided only by the King and Winge‘s whistle. The 25th became the 26th and Sophia had been stranded for about forty hours.

At around 8:30 am on the 26th, the Cedar, King and Winge, and some other boats that rejoined the effort returned to the reef but the Princess Sophia was no longer secure on the rocks. Instead, they found one of her masts still visible above the water, and the surrounding water covered with oil. There was no sign of any survivors and Captain Ledbetter sent out a message saying that he did not expect to find any.

A rescue ship locating the Princess Sophia by her mast

It’s thought that a gale or the tide, or perhaps a combination of both, finally lifted the Sophia off the reef as Captain Locke had initially predicted. However, the swell dragged the ship across the rock, further damaging her hull and causing her to sink. With oil spilling rapidly into the water, any passengers that might have survived the sinking would have died from the effects of oil inhalation, assuming they didn’t succumb to the violence of the storm or its temperatures. With no survivors or witnesses, what happened to the Princess Sophia is theory and speculation. The only thing to survive the sinking was a dog later found exhausted and covered in oil at Auke Bay.

A hundred bodies were recovered at the site but many would be gradually washed up on shore in the coming months, mostly covered in oil. Their watches were found to have stopped at 17:50, thought to be the time the ship took its final plunge. Some lifeboats may have been launched but they were found battered on the rocks, or at the bottom of the passage. Only one man was thought to have made it to shore alive; Second Officer Frank Gosse who appears to have successfully sailed a lifeboat to shore only to succumb to exposure.

Hindsight suggested that the ship should have been evacuated at the earliest opportunity but Captain Locke’s decisions were ultimately deemed reasonable. He had every reason to believe that the weather would shortly improve and he was aware of an earlier wreck; the Clallam which had been evacuated early leading to the death of 54 passengers when the lifeboats capsized.

The sinking garnered little attention in the media despite the loss of all hands. One British paper ran the story with only a single sentence for the tragedy, followed by several lines clarifying where the wreck occurred. The sinking happened during the closing stages of the First World War so death was a common element of the news. But what completely overshadowed the event was the end of the war; a declaration of peace came only two weeks after the Princess Sophia foundered. Her sister ship the Princess Alice had been dispatched to search the reef for more victims and returned to port on the evening of the 11th November. The following day, flags were lowered for an hour to honour the lost ship but already a festival atmosphere had overtaken everyone. There was little space in the news for anything else.

If you’d like to join me for some behind the scenes tidbits regarding the Eastland or the letters found on the Princess Sophia you can support me via my Patreon. We can also just chat history and have some fun.

Related Articles