This Site of a Maritime Disaster is Now Home to a Famous Canadian Submarine Museum
Today we are visiting Pointe-au-Pére (Father’s Point), a national historic landmark in Québec, and the home of the HMCS Onondaga – a Royal Canadian Navy torpedo submarine. The Empress of Ireland Exhibit and Pavilion, and the Pointe-au-Pére Lighthouse are also at this site.
Pointe-au-Pére is located in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region of the Québec Maritime. It is the traditional starting point for the scenic Gaspésie Tour known for outstanding landscapes, charming inns, and delicious foods such as succulent lamb, artisan cheeses, and maple victuals.
The Oberon Class HMCS Onondaga (S73) was part of the Canadian Navy’s prestigious Atlantic Maritime Forces for over 30 years. She was decommissioned in 2000, and became a warship museum in 2009. The Onondaga is the only military submarine on permanent public display in Canada.
Onondaga means “People of the hills.” Her motto is “Invicta,” in English, “Unconquerable.” She is 295 feet long with a cruising range of 10,000 miles propelled by twin diesel electric engines.
The Onondaga is an attack submarine with eight torpedo tubes, six in the bow, and two in the stern. She sailed with 18 torpedoes and a crew of 70.
Living and working aboard the Onondaga would be “cozy.”
Visiting the Onondaga is an excellent opportunity to tour a modern submarine, which is quite different from the mostly WWII vintage boats that are open to the public in other parts of the world.
Sinking of the Empress of Ireland
Another attraction at Pointe-au-Pére is the Empress of Ireland Pavilion. The pavilion houses a museum that opened in 2000 and contains a creative recounting of the history of Canada’s worst maritime disaster, which took place just off the nearby headlands.
In heavy fog, in the early hours of May 29, 1914 the luxury liner RMS Empress of Ireland was struck amidships by a steamship hauling coal up the St. Lawrence River. The steamer was fixed with an icebreaker bow that tore a 14-foot hole in the Empress. She sank in just 14 minutes. There were 1,477 passengers aboard the ill-fated liner – only 465 survived the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence.
A Titanic size catastrophe
Even though the loss of life on the Empress of Ireland was in a league with that of the Titanic and Lusitania, the sinking of the Empress remains relatively unknown. There are several reasons.
The Titanic was a celebrity ship on her maiden voyage on the prestigious route between New York and London. There were many famous people aboard and her builders had bragged that the Titanic was unsinkable. After hitting an iceberg, she sank on April 15, 1912.
The Lusitania had the distinction of being torpedoed by a German submarine on May 7, 1915, just under a year after the Empress tragedy. The Lusitania incident eventually led to the United States entering World War I.
Contrast those famous calamities with that of the Empress of Ireland. The Empress was on a routine (96th) run across the Atlantic from Québec City to Liverpool – not a particularly prestigious route. There were no famous millionaires aboard, and the loss of 1,012 lives was apparently not remarkable at a time when tens of thousands were dying on the battlefields of Europe. The Empress tragedy was literally pushed from the front pages.
Notwithstanding the lack of notoriety at the time, the Empress sinking was Canada’s greatest sea tragedy and one of the world’s biggest civilian losses of life at sea.
To this very day, there are over 600 bodies entombed in the twisted wreck of the Empress – just 130 feet below the surface of the icy cold waters of the swift St. Lawrence River.
The detailed exhibits in the Pavilion are full of artifacts recovered from the ship. In addition, a dramatic film presentation documents the events leading up to the sinking.
Had it not been for the early dark hour and fog, the Empress of Ireland accident could have been visible from the Pointe-au-Pére Lighthouse. Built in 1909, at 108 feet the lighthouse is the second tallest in Canada.
The lighthouse is constructed of concrete with eight buttresses that support a central tower with 128 steps to the top.
The light was deactivated in 1975, and it, along with the adjoining lighthouse keeper’s house, is now open to the public.
The keeper’s lodge is a “Museum of the Sea,” in which there are several interesting exhibits about navigation on the St. Lawrence River.
If you go
This national historic site lies three and one half hours northeast of Québec City. Drive along the south shore of the St. Lawrence on Route 132. Your destination is just 15 minutes east of Rimouski.
We recommend vacationing in the Quebec Maritime
Lucky is the family that gets to vacation in Québec and explore its history and many natural wonders. This beautiful eco-friendly province of Canada is a photographer’s dream that has adventures around every turn in the road. We like spending quality-time in The Maritime, and we think you will too.
For more information about what the Québec Maritime has to offer, check out their website: http://quebecmaritime.ca. Take special note of their unique self-guided tours.
Other articles about Québec
Click on a title below to read more vacation stories about the bountiful Québec Maritime.
© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff
Photos © Wayne and Judy Bayliff
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