For nearly three-quarters of a century, the name "Bach" was synonymous with music in Rochester.
But the name is also connected to a Canadian maritime disaster that claimed the life of the family patriarch.
Bach Music Co., a store that sold everything from pianos and musical instruments to sheet music and phonographs (and eventually even kitchen appliances), was located on South Broadway from 1909 to 1971. There were branches in Owatonna and Austin, operated by brothers Reynold (also spelled "Reinholdt") and Adolph. They were two of 12 children of Reinholdt and Barbara Bach, who lived in Marion Township.
Reinholdt, the elder, was born in 1836 in Erfurt, Germany, and came to America with his family when he was 10 years old. The Bachs could trace their lineage to composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and Reinholdt himself was a musician of some local renown, including as a member of the Rochester German Sang Verein.
In 1914, a year after the death of his wife, Reinholdt, 78, booked a trip to Europe. On May 28, he and his daughter, Edith, along with Herman Kruse and his daughter, Freda, also of Rochester, boarded the ocean liner RMS Empress of Ireland in Quebec City, Canada, bound for Liverpool.
Just before 2 a.m. the next day, the Empress of Ireland collided with the Norwegian ship SS Storstad in dense fog on the St. Lawrence River. The crash tore a gaping hole in the starboard side of the Empress of Ireland. Most passengers were asleep in their cabins.
“As soon as I felt the concussion, I spoke to Mr. Bach, who was awakened by the blow, and said we had better go up on deck and ascertain what was the matter,” Herman Kruse told the Rochester Daily Bulletin.
Edith and Freda were sharing the adjacent cabin, and Kruse knocked on their door. “They joined us at once, after throwing heavy wraps over their night clothes,” he said.
In no time at all, though, the Empress of Ireland started listing sharply.
“It seemed (more) like going up a perpendicular ladder than a stairway,” Kruse said, “but we reached the deck without Mr. Bach, who suffered with rheumatism in his legs and had asked us to go on and he would follow. No sooner had we reached the upper decks that the ship began to turn over on her side. The boats and other things slid toward the starboard rail, carrying us with the debris.”
Passengers were thrown overboard into the freezing water. The sudden listing of the ship made it impossible to launch all of the lifeboats. The Empress of Ireland sank within 14 minutes.
Kruse was able to climb aboard a collapsible boat, where he was soon joined by other survivors. As they neared the Storstad, which was helping with the rescue, Kruse heard his daughter calling from another lifeboat. Edith Bach had been picked up by yet another lifeboat, and the three Rochester travelers were soon reunited, first on the Storstad and later in Quebec City, where survivors were taken.
“None of us had seen anything of Mr. Bach,” Kruse said.
Edith Bach, along with the Kruses, waited in Quebec until Reinholdt Bach’s body was recovered. They then accompanied his casket home to Rochester.
Of the 1,477 people on board the Empress of Ireland that night, only 465 survived. The wreck of the ship, 130 feet underwater, is now a protected site through the Canadian Cultural Property Act.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.