A Titanic Coincidence

How the gala opening of two hotels was disrupted two maritime disasters.

Titanica!

Most steamship researchers/scholars/enthusiasts know the many similarities between the Canadian Pacific ocean liner Empress of Ireland and the famous White Star Line leviathan Titanic. Both ships were express liners, mainly immigrant vessels, British-flagged and registered in Liverpool. After both ships tragically sank with a great loss of life, British Admiralty judge Lord Mersey presided over an investigation into the causes of the disasters. At both inquiries Butler Aspinall, KC, the shrewd English barrister, appeared as counsel.1 These disasters also created the myth of Frank Tower. Tower was allegedly a stoker who survived both tragedies, as well as the 1915 Lusitania torpedoing. While the Tower story made it into the pages of Ripley's Believe It or Not, historians have now largely discounted it. But the 88th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress on 29 May 2002 does bring to mind another little known similarity between the two disasters. Even more surprisingly, this similarity occurred on the same date just two years apart.

Grand Trunk's Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa

The official opening of the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada was postponed due to the loss of Grand Trunk Railway president Charles Melville Hays in the Titanic disaster. The Chateau, as it is affectionately known, is located adjacent to Canada's Parliament Buildings. It was to have been the flagship in Grand Trunk's chain of eight luxury hotels. Construction began on the hotel in 1908 and the opening ceremonies were scheduled to take place on 26 April 1912. Hays was to attend the occasion and was returning to Canada from a European business trip on board the ill-fated Titanic. When his death was confirmed after the ship struck an iceberg and sank in the early morning hours of 15 April 1912, all plans for the opening were cancelled. The hotel merely opened its doors for business without ceremony six weeks later on 1 June 1912. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada's first French-Canadian prime minister, after whom the hotel was named, simply signed the register as the initial guest.2

Canadian Pacific's Palliser Hotel in Calgary

The official unveiling of the Palliser Hotel on 1 June 1914 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada was a low key event due to the loss of the Empress of Ireland in the St. Lawrence River with the loss of 1,012 lives.3 The Empress was struck by the Norwegian collier Storstad and sank in 14 minutes. The Palliser, located in downtown Calgary, was named after Captain John Palliser, who led a British scientific expedition from 1857 to 1860 across the Canadian prairies.

When news reached Calgary of the tragedy, the Canadian Pacific Railway, owners of both the Palliser and the Empress, cancelled all celebrations for the hotel's official opening. According to the News Telegram newspaper, the hotel's doors were simply opened for business without ceremony.4 Thus the Palliser followed in the sad footsteps of the Chateau two years to the day by cancelling a gala railway hotel opening because of an ocean liner disaster.

1 Aspinall represented the Board of Trade in the Titanic inquiry and Canadian Pacific in the Empress inquiry.
2 Gavin Murphy, Titanic Victim Charles Melville Hays: The Man Who Built Ottawa's Chateau Laurier Hotel, (Ottawa, Nepean Museum, 2000), p. 13.
3 A total of 1,523 souls were taken in the Titanic disaster, although more passenger lives were lost in the Empress' sinking.
4 Barbara Chisholm, Russell Floren, Andrea Gutsche, Castles of the North, Canada's Grand Hotels, (Toronto, Lynx Images, 2001), p. 233.

Copyright © Gavin Murphy 2002. All Rights Reserved.

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