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Pointe au Pere

Death of an Empress
Pointe-au-Père was built as a beacon to guide ships groping their way along the foggy reaches of the mighty St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean.
But it has played many important roles in maritime history since the first of its four lighthouses went into service in 1859.

The world's first fog alarms were tested here. And before long no ships would pass Pointe-au-Père without picking up one of its expert pilots to navigate the treacherous currents and sandbars of the upper St. Lawrence.

Pointe-au-Père pre-dated air travel and air mail as the main distribution centre for mail brought from Europe to North America. Ocean liners dropped off their mail bags at the lighthouse. Smaller ships then collected and sorted the mail as they sailed along the St.Lawrence. The mail was offloaded onto waiting trains for final destinations across the continent.

In 1909, Pointe-au-Père became home to the new Marconi wire telegraph station for improved communications with the shipping industry.

Within the year the captain of the Empress of Ireland used the telegraph and its new “instant” hook-up to tip off police that notorious murderer Dr. Harvey Crippen was on-board a ship bound for Montreal. Crippen was disguised as a father accompanying an adolescent youth (in reality his mistress). He was promptly arrested by police and deported back to the U.K. for trial.

In 1914 Pointe-au-Père received the first distress signals from the passenger liner Empress of Ireland. It had just collided with a Norwegian coal carrier in dense fog four miles off the coast.

Lighthouse staff summoned help but the liner sank in just 14 minutes claiming 1,012 lives. Rescuers arriving at the scene found only frozen bodies floating across the surface of the St. Lawrence. More lives were lost here than in the sinking of the Titanic.

However, the full horror of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland was overshadowed by the outbreak of the First World War a few months later. To this day the liner lies entombed on the riverbed with both passengers' remains and valuable artefacts. Pointe-au-Père, 300 kilometres east of Quebec City, commemorates the tragedy with its own maritime museum devoted to the tradition of river pilot navigation, lighthouses, the Marconi telegraph and the Empress of Ireland disaster.