About The Empress of Japan

The Empress of Japan was the star of the Canadian Pacific Steamship line from 1891 to 1922, and in my mind is an archetype, embodying the romance of the early steamship age. With her graceful, yacht-like lines and white hull, she was the height of elegant, exotic travel. She carried mail between North America and China, and held the speed record for crossing the Pacific Ocean for over two decades.

She also typified her era in more ways than one. While first class passengers enjoyed the lavishly appointed saloons, steerage passengers crammed into tiny cabins below. And while senior officers paraded the upper decks in white uniforms and presided at first class dining tables, a large staff of mostly Chinese crewmen laboured in the engine room.

When the Empress was retired in 1922, she remained tied up in Vancouver harbour for several years. My father, who was a boat-mad boy at the time, found a leaky old rowboat and persuaded a chum of his to row out with him into the harbour so he could take photos of the ship with his Brownie camera. These photos, taken c. 1923, are not so much a testament to great photography, as to determined bailing and a lot of luck.

The Empress of Japan was much beloved by Vancouverites, and after she was scrapped, the Vancouver Province newspaper rescued her figurehead and had it mounted for display in Stanley Park. It still stands on the shoreline where locals used to watch the Empress entering and leaving Vancouver Harbour, and dream of making a journey to the Orient.

The CP built a second Empress of Japan in 1929, but by that time steamships were becoming big ugly boxes stacked around engines, and the romance was gone. Now the only passenger ships in our waters are cruise ships which travel the coast to Alaska in summer, looking like huge white bathroom fixtures.