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
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.