A quick guide to visiting a lesser-known tourist attraction: Pointe-au-Père Maritime Historic Site

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.

Pointe-au-Père lighthouse, Rimouski

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.

Pointe au Pere lighthouse

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.

Pointe au Pere lighthouse

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.

The Empress of Ireland, builder model - scale 1/48
The Empress of Ireland, builder model – scale 1/48

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.

Onondaga submarine

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.

Interesting facts:

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)

Crew: 68

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

28 thoughts on “A quick guide to visiting a lesser-known tourist attraction: Pointe-au-Père Maritime Historic Site

  1. Good memories Christie. We stopped there in September 2018 and went up the lighthouse as the residue of an Atlantic hurricane blew through. We never stopped into the museum or sub, but the views from the top of the light were spectacular. Cheers. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Going up to the top of the light is going to be on our list next time🙂 It was too misty and rainy, and we skipped that part, but I guess the view is terrific on a sunny day. Have a wonderful weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The stories were new to us as well, I didn’t know there was another tragic accident just 2 years after Titanic, although the ship was smaller, so many casualties!!
      Have a beautiful weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Three very interesting stories, Christie. I love lighthouses, as probably most people do and wouldn’t pass on an opportunity to see one or learn more about its history. Submarines are equally fascinating. This past summer we visited one in the Bay of Tivat, Montenegro and found ourselves very curious about the everyday life of the sailors: where they sleep, eat, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So cool to see a submarine, isn’t it? I was especially amazed at how narrow were some of the beds, and how they ‘saved’ any single inch of space, I know they have to! The torpedo loading hatch was much larger then all the living quarters altogether.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What an interesting story, Christie 🙂 I love the Pointe-au-Père lighthouse and its slender shape. It must have been an amazing experience to visit the Onondaga submarine and learn what life was like for all the men aboard this magnificent behemoth. Thanks for sharing and have a lovely weekend 🙂 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have never visited a submarine before, and certainly I was amazed at the way of living in such enclosed spaces. These were peaceful times, I don’t want to think about the ones who really patrolled or participated in any kind of war..
      Hope you’re enjoying your weekend too! We have an amazing one, so sunny and beautiful here, a winter wonderland🙂
      xx

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a lovely lighthouse and a great spot to learn about the history of the area and the St Lawrence River (while also avoiding the rain). The self-guided tour of the submarine looks interesting. I have no idea how people can live and work on one of those things in such tight spaces!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True, that was what it struck me too. Everything was so narrow, and some of the beds were right along the passageways, not quite sure how were they able to sleep there, a tough life for sure!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a fun visit! I truly love the Gaspe, add to that a lighthouse… what could possibly beat that? But then I loved the history lesson. And you reminded me what fun it is to say Onondaga! Wishing you many happy roads to travel this coming year! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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