It scarcely seems possible that almost forty years have elapsed since that fateful night when the Canada Steamship Lines steamer EMPEROR was lost out on Lake Superior. Nevertheless, the relentless passing of the years has faded the memories of the unusual circumstances of the accident, and some of our younger readers may not even be familiar with the story of this most interesting vessel. At first thought, one might venture the opinion that the life of EMPEROR was not particularly unusual or eventful up until the time of the accident that ended her career and the lives of many of her crew, but that is not really the case, as the following narrative will indicate.
EMPEROR was a steel-hulled bulk carrier, which was built as Hull 28 of the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company Ltd. She was launched into the waters of Collingwood harbour on Saturday, December 17th, 1910, and she was christened by her managing owner, James Playfair of Midland. She was enrolled at Midland, Ontario, which was to serve as her port of registry for her entire career, and she was given Official Number C.126654.
EMPEROR was powered by a triple expansion steam engine, which had cylinders of 23, 38 1/2 and 63 inches diameter, and a stroke of 42 inches. This machinery produced Nominal Horsepower of 257, or Indicated Horsepower of 2,200. Steam at 180 p.s.i. was produced by two coal-fired, single-ended Scotch boilers, which measured 15'6" by 12'0". All of the machinery was built especially for the steamer by the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company Ltd.
The new steamer was a handsome vessel with pleasing lines. She had a full forecastle, and a closed rail ran about three-quarters of the way down the forecastle head. An additional raised section of the closed rail was fitted at its far forward end. A very large texas cabin sat on the forecastle, and it contained not only the senior officers' quarters, but also accommodations for guests. Across the front of the texas were six large observation windows, with two more on each side.
The bridge deck, atop the texas, was particularly spacious and it extended outward, almost to the sides of the ship, to form wide bridgewings. A closed steel rail around the front of the bridge deck provided protection for the pilothouse, which had seven large windows across its rounded front, and an additional window on each side abaft the door. As she was originally built, EMPEROR had no sunvisor around the pilothouse. An open navigation bridge was located on the monkey's island atop the pilothouse, with a high closed rail around this area giving protection from the elements. As well, an awning was usually stretched over the open bridge to shelter the officers from precipitation and from the heat of the sun. The well-raked foremast rose immediately abaft the pilothouse.
EMPEROR's counter stern was cut with particularly fine lines and added considerable grace to the hull. A. closed taffrail ran around the after end of the spar deck, providing protection for the aft cabin, a large structure which featured windows rather than portholes to admit light. The boilerhouse was incorporated into the forward end of the cabin, and originally there was no rail around the bunker hatch. A well-proportioned stack, fairly tall and heavy, and well-raked, rose quite far forward on the boat deck, just abaft two prominent ventilator cowls which provided fresh air for the boiler room. The mainmast was stepped very close behind the stack, and it was raked on exactly the same angle as were the stack and foremast, thus giving a pleasing balance to EMPEROR's profile. Three lifeboats were carried on the boat deck, and they were worked from Welin davits. There was one boat on the starboard side, and two on the port side, and the latter were worked by three davits, the centre one having a double head and serving both boats. The aft boat on the port side was removed after a few years, but the third davit remained in place throughout EMPEROR's life.
EMPEROR was built for Inland Lines Ltd., Hamilton (later Midland), of which James Playfair of Midland was manager. There actually is some question as to who originally placed the order for the construction of the ship, which was then described as a mammoth because she was the largest vessel then built in Canada, and also the largest Canadian-owned lake freighter. Inland Lines Ltd. was incorporated on May 10, 1910, when James Playfair and his associates acquired control of the Inland Navigation Company Ltd., Hamilton, a firm that had been controlled by the Mackays of Hamilton. As EMPEROR was launched in December 1910, it seems likely that she actually had been designed before the takeover date. Both the Mackay and Playfair interests had been active in adding new ships to their respective fleets.
The choice of the name EMPEROR was appropriate, for it not only made reference to the size of the ship, but it also indicated Playfair's royalist leanings. He had already built MIDLAND QUEEN, MIDLAND KING and MIDLAND PRINCE, and he also owned EMPRESS OF MIDLAND and EMPRESS OF FORT WILLIAM. Later, in the 1920s, he was interested in a line of ocean-going vessels which traded from the Canadian east coast to Cuba and other Caribbean destinations, and all of those ships carried names which bore the prefix "Emperor", as in EMPEROR OF PORT MCNICOLL. (As it turned out, the name EMPEROR was even more appropriate in that James Playfair came to be one of the foremost Canadian shipping entrepreneurs of all time.)
EMPEROR was completed in the spring of 1911 and was accepted by her owners after the necessary trials, which were run in Georgian Bay off Collingwood. She began her maiden voyage when she cleared Collingwood, upbound light, on Wednesday, May 3rd, 1911. It was exactly two weeks later that she first ran into trouble*. While upbound in Lake Huron on May 17th, she had the misfortune to fracture her main shaft. She was towed into DeTour on May 19th, and later was taken to Port Arthur for the necessary repairs.
For most of her years under Inland Lines ownership, EMPEROR had a black hull, with white cabins and a crimson stack with a black smokeband. The names of the vessel and of her owner appeared in white letters which were carried very low on the bow, almost level with the anchor pockets. There is, however, reason to believe that, when EMPEROR was first commissioned, her hull may have been painted grey; if this is correct, then EMPEROR would have had the distinction of being the first of many Playfair ships to carry a grey hull.
On June 26, 1911. Inland Lines Ltd. came under the influence of the famous Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company Ltd., Montreal, for the R. & O. acquired a controlling interest in Inland from Playfair, who immediately was elected to the board of directors of R. & O. This shift in ownership did not cause any significant changes for the still-new EMPEROR, except possibly the loss of her grey hull paint. However, the merger was followed in 1913 by the formation of the Canada Transportation Company Ltd., Montreal (the name was changed almost immediately to Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., Montreal), in which R. & O. played a leading role. In this manner, EMPEROR came to be part of the C.S.L. fleet, for which she would operate for the balance of her life.
When EMPEROR first began to operate for C.S.L., her hull was painted red, her cabins became grey with white trim, and her stack remained red with a black top. On her bows she carried the white outline of a diamond, with the letters 'CSL' inside in white, the 'S' being rather larger than either the 'C' or the 'L'. Before many years had passed, however, the fleet adopted the red, white and black stack design that its vessels carry to this day. During the early 1920s, the cabins became white instead of grey, and at the beginning of the 1927 season, the diamond was removed from the vessels' bows, their forecastles were painted white, and the company's name was painted in large white letters down the sides of the ships.
EMPEROR served in all of the various trades operated by C.S.L. on the upper lakes, but most frequently carried ore to Point Edward for shipment by rail to the steel mills of Hamilton. After the opening of the fourth Welland Canal, she often carried ore direct to Hamilton. EMPEROR, however, was not a frequent visitor to the port of Toronto, and it is our belief that she only called at Toronto on two occasions. Her first visit began on November 27th, 1933. when she laid up for the winter at the Century Coal Company Ltd. dock, which was located on the east side of Toronto Bay, in the general area of Cherry and Villiers Streets. She carried a cargo of coal, and this was unloaded during the winter. Due to the quiescent state of lake shipping in 1934, as a consequence of the Great Depression, EMPEROR did not fit out in the spring of that year. The Century Coal dock had to be made available to other ships, however, so EMPEROR was towed away and was moored along the south wall of the ship channel, facing outward and in the direction of the Cherry Street bridge. It was much later in the 1934 season that EMPEROR was finally fitted out and placed back in service. This sporadic type of operation was typical of the service of many of C.S.L.'s ships during the Depression period.
EMPEROR's second visit to Toronto came during December of 1939, when once again she came in to lay up for the winter. Light ship, she again lay along the south wall of the channel. One untoward incident marred the ship's return to service in the spring of 1940. One of her officers, J. A. Morey, somehow managed to fall overboard from one of the bridgewings as the ship cleared the channel. He was rescued without serious injury. We shall hear more about him as our story progresses, but now we will go back a few years.
The steamer had managed to make the headlines on Wednesday, November 25th, 1936. During the previous night, whilst proceeding across Lake Superior and laden with 9,000 tons of coal for delivery at the Canadian Lakehead, she lost her rudder in extremely heavy weather. She was east of Port Arthur, between Passage Island and Lamb Island, at the time, and she spent the day of the 25th drifting helplessly in the heavy seas. The tug JAMES WHALEN was dispatched from the Lakehead to render assistance, but before she could get to the scene, the C.S.L. package freighter RENVOYLE was able to get a line aboard EMPEROR, and she towed the heavily-iced steamer to the safety of the harbour at Fort William. Unfortunately, one of EMPEROR's deckhands, 21-year-old Ernest Leclair, was missing when the vessel reached port, and it was believed that he had been swept overboard during the storm.
EMPEROR operated through the war years without untoward incident, keeping extremely busy throughout that period as a result of the heavy demand for iron ore for the war effort. However, the postwar years, and the 1947 navigation season in particular, proved to be her undoing. On Tuesday, June 3rd, 1947, EMPEROR loaded a cargo of 10,000 tons of iron ore, from the Steep Rock Mine, at the C.N.R. dock in Port Arthur. At 11:30 p.m., she departed for Ashtabula, Ohio, under the command of veteran C.S.L. master, Capt. Eldon Walkinshaw, 6l, of Collingwood. After his ship had cleared the harbour, the captain retired to his cabin, leaving the First Mate, J. A. Morey, of Kingston, on watch in the pilothouse. (Remember Morey? He was the one who had fallen overboard from EMPEROR at Toronto in 1940, and as well he had sustained a fractured arm in an accident aboard the ship during the 1946 season.)
The night was clear and calm, and the temperature was about 42 degrees (Fahrenheit). EMPEROR was proceeding at about three-quarters throttle. Just after 4:00 on the morning of Wednesday, June 4th, EMPEROR struck Canoe Rocks, located off the northeastern tip of Isle Royale, some 45 miles from Port Arthur. The ship struck the rocks with such force that she broke in two and quickly filled with water. The stern section sank in deep water, while the bow went down in some sixty feet of water, with the foremast and the top of the pilothouse showing above the surface of the lake.
The lifeboats were quickly readied, and the starboard boat got away safely. The port boat, however, was thrown against the side of the after cabin as the stern section of the steamer lurched in its death throes, and the boat overturned. Twenty-one crew members managed to get away from EMPEROR, but twelve were lost in the sinking, among them being Capt. Walkinshaw, First Officer Morey, the second engineer, one wheelsman, one watchman, two cooks, one porter, three firemen, and a coal passer.
The loss of life would have been much heavier had not the U.S. Coast Guard cutter KIMBALL been working in the vicinity. Commanded by Lt. C. R. Clark, she was off Blake Point Light, less than four miles from Canoe Rocks, at the time. She received the first distress call at 4:10 a.m., and by 4:50 she had reached the scene of the wreck and her motor launch was picking up survivors. Seven survivors were picked up from the nearby rocks, where they were clinging for safety, while ten were rescued from the starboard lifeboat, which had already delivered one load of crewmembers to the rocks and had returned to pick up others. Four were found clinging to the overturned port lifeboat, suffering greatly in the frigid water. All twenty-one were taken by the KIMBALL to safety ashore.
C.S.L. immediately chartered the local excursion boat COASTAL QUEEN, a converted Royal Canadian Navy fairmile, and took her to the scene to search for survivors and the bodies of those lost. Divers were also sent to the scene, but their efforts were cut short several days after the sinking, when the area was subjected to inclement weather. No further survivors were ever found and subsequent investigations of the wreck over the years proved that some of those lost had been trapped inside EMPEROR when she sank.
The official enquiry, headed by Department of Transport commissioner Mr. Justice F. H. Barlow, was the forum for much bitter disagreement, particularly as between company and union representatives, as to the various and numerous factors which might have caused the accident. The principal factor, and the the most relevant as far as we are concerned at this late point in time, is that, for whatever reasons, a necessary course change was ordered at an inappropriate time, thus leading inevitably to the stranding of the ship. She was almost two miles off course when she hit Canoe Rocks. None of those who were on watch in the pilothouse at the immediate time of the grounding were amongst the survivors, despite the fact that, had they but known, they might have escaped the lake waters simply by climbing atop the pilothouse roof.
EMPEROR was last reported visible above water on November 11, 1947, when she was noted to be lying about 3 1/4 miles 281 degrees from Blake Point Light. By 1963, the wreck had a least depth of fourteen feet over it, the bow section no doubt having been scraped down to the hull by the pressure of ice over the years, and by the battering of stormy weather.
In the almost four decades that have elapsed since the tragic accident, much of the bitterness that arose from the loss of the EMPEROR, and from its consequences, has faded. What we remember today is a beautiful (and rather unique) steamer, which for many years had been an integral part of the C.S.L. fleet, and one of its largest ships. She probably would have continued to serve the company for two further decades, into the 1960s, as did so many of her contemporaries, had not human error intervened to cut short her life.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.