Located on the shores of St. Lawrence River, 11 km from Rimouski, Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse was designated a National Historic Site in 1974. The treacherous shore enveloped in a dense mist was a sufficient proof for us that the lighthouses were much-needed at the mouth of the river, and along Route 132 of Gaspé Peninsula.
Our drive around Beautiful Gaspesié did not include originally this visit, but the grey and rainy morning we woke up with in Rimouski made us change our plans quickly, and here we are, learning about local history, and the dangers of the waterway.
The Pointe-au-Père lighthouse
Navigating the St Lawrence River is extremely risky. European explorers discovered this quickly and began relying on skilled pilots early in the French Regime. Over time, piloting became an established professional occupation. The first official pilot station opened at Le Bic in 1762 was relocated to Pointe-au-Père in 1905 where it remained for 54 years. In 1906 Pointe-au-Père became the official pilotage station.
Erected in 1909 the Pointe-au-Père lighthouse was equipped with a powerful beacon to guide all ships entering the estuary; its dioptric lantern (1.5-ton beacon of glass and brass) and its original interior staircase are still intact.
Pointe-au-Père lighthouse is one of the tallest lighthouses in Canada, with a height of 33 metres.
From 1859, Pointe-au-Père is linked with Quebec by telegraph, and as of 1906 with the arrival of the Marconi station, the communications as greatly improved, capable of transmitting wirelessly up to 483 km.
The sad story of the Empress of Ireland
With only two days on the St Lawrence River, and less than 4 days at sea, The EMPRESS of the Atlantic was guaranteed to provide the shortest ocean passage from Quebec City to Liverpool.
Built in 1906 in Edinburg, this 168m long ship transported thousands of travelers for eight years in a row. Being able to accommodate 1580 passenger’s, RMS Empress of Ireland was very popular due to its size, comfort and speed.
Unfortunately, on the night of the 29th of May 1914, right before the ship was heading to exiting the gulf to the final destination, something happened. In no more than 14 minutes, the Empress of Ireland disappeared at the bottom of the river. The ship sees the collier Storstad, the fog thickens, and the ships are about to pass each other.. all of a sudden, they collide, and this transatlantic liner, on her 192nd crossing sank in the most unexpected way.
Although the ship was equipped with watertight compartments, and in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster two years earlier, she disappeared in only 14 minutes. Of the 1,477 people in total on board, 1,012 died, making it the greatest maritime tragedy in Canadian history.
The Empress of Ireland rests today at the bottom of the St Lawrence River, 13 km northeast of the historic site. Since 1964, divers and archaeologists alike have visited and explored this site, still much to be discovered by today, as the cold and treacherous waters made the discoveries difficult.
A commission of Inquiry was held in Quebec for eleven days, 18 days after disaster. At the beginning of the inquiry twenty questions were formulated by the Canadian government, and testimonies from a total of 61 witnesses were heard. But two very different accounts of the collision were given from each vessel. After all the evidence being heard, which ship following which course and protocol, the Commissioners found Storstad at fault.
Beside the Titanic, the Empress of Ireland disaster were given as evidence for naval architects to discontinue building ships with longitudinal subdivision, being very hazardous in ship collisions., and also to change the design of ships’ bows.
The museum is tracing the story of the ship, and various exhibitions detail every step of the events, and subsequent inquiries to its sinking. Beside the variety of artefacts found and rescued from the depth of the river, the museum reveals the important underwater expeditions that marked its history, and the difficult diving conditions and techniques used during the time.
The Onondaga submarine
Onondaga is not only a submarine. It means People of the Hills (or of the longhouse), as the Onondaga are part of the native Haudenosaunee, known as the “firekeepers” of the people of their confederacy.
With a name hard to forget, HMCS Onondaga is the only vessel from Royal Canadian Navy to wear a native name.
HMCS Onondaga was commissioned at Chatham, United Kingdom and served most of her career from Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1994, she served for six months on the west coast from Esquimalt, British Columbia. She was decommissioned in 2000, as the last Canadian Oberon-class submarine. Instead of being scrapped, the submarine was purchased by the Pointe-au-Père Maritime Historic Site, in Rimouski, Quebec in 2006. HMCS Onondaga was towed to Rimouski in July 2008 where she will become an exhibit.
Builder: Her Majesty’s Dockyard, Chatham, United Kingdom
Date laid down: 18 June 1964
Date launched: 25 September 1965
Date commissioned: 22 June 1967
Date paid off: 28 July 2000
Displacement: 1635.8 tonnes (surface) / 2448.7 tonnes (submerged)
Dimensions: 90 m x 8 m x 5.5 m
Speed: 12 knots or 22.22 kph (surface) / 17 knots or 31.48 kph (submerged)
Armament: eight 21-inch (533-mm) torpedo tubes
Motto: Invicta (Unconquered)
The self-guided audio tour inside the submarine was full of surprises. We learned how was the life for the 68 men, living aboard this vessel, crisscrossing the North Atlantic from 1967 to 2000. This is Canada’s first publicly accessible submarine, showing the people everything from the powerful motors, the narrow beds, the control room, the sonar and periscopes, the living quarters, the galley, the electrical and hydraulic systems,
and finally at the end, the impressive torpedo room.
Tip(s) of the day:
- This is the perfect stop in case the weather is not cooperating for outdoor activities;
- The fee for both museums is cheaper than the individual tickets, for more information you can read here;
- In 2005 during the Canadian television film The Last Voyage of the Empress more evidence was gathered regarding the sinking with historical reference, model re-enactment, and underwater investigation – an interesting documentary;
- The transportation and removal of Onondaga from the water was featured in the Supersize Submarine episode of the Monster Moved documentary series.
~ visited in September 2021