This Marine Day (海の日) we're celebrating the Empress of Japan

The second of the trinity of ‘White Empresses’, so named because of their hull colours, Empress of Japan (I) was ordered by the Canadian Pacific Railway so as to establish its command of the best route to the commercial wealth of the Orient.

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Empress of Japan (I) passing through the narrows, Vancouver, on her maiden voyage in July 1891. 

VMM. Leonard McCann Archives. VMM Photograph Collection. LM2006.1000.454. 1891. 

Built in Barrow, England by the Navel Construction Company, she was completed in March 1891 and arrived in Vancouver on June 23 1891, having finished a ‘Round-the-World’ excursion. Her cargo included tea, silk, sugar, spices, rice, opium and general merchandise along with the Saloon (First) and Tourist (Second) passengers, who were all white, and Steerage passengers who were all Chinese. This was to be the general pattern of her carriage through out her long life.

She was a small ship by today’s standards – only 455 feet in length, 51 feet in breadth, 36 feet in depth and of 5,943 gross tons. As built, accommodation was provided for 160 first class passengers and 40 second-class passengers, plus space below for steerage passengers. She put in time as an Armed Merchant Cruiser (1914-15) in Royal Navy Service and also as a Troop Transporter (1919).

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Empress of Japan (I) crew

VMM. Leonard McCann Archives. VMM Photo Collection. LM2006.1000.440. Empress of Japan (I) crew. 

Empress of Japan (I) made 316 trips across the Pacific in passenger service, she steamed two and a half million miles with her original engines and boilers and she set a record by averaging 17 knots for twenty-two years. With only one accident that delayed her for six days, Empress of Japan was in service continuously for 31 years.

Equal to this impressive statistical record was her happy association with early Vancouver, which included the active presence of her captains and crew as they participated in the life and times of the growing port and city. Captains Pybus, Robinson, Beetham, Hopecraft and Bailey were all at one time, masters on board Empress of Japan. Their names and families became part of the fabric of Vancouver. 

Empress of Japan (I) remained in CPR service until 1922. She was scrapped in 1926 and various pieces of her fabric were spread around the city of Vancouver. Over the years some of these pieces have come to Vancouver Maritime Museum where they are conserved and displayed as memorial to one of the most favored ships to have ever graced our port. The biggest surviving piece, her dragon figurehead, is on display here at the Museum.

Probably carved in Japan and installed on the ship in 1890, the figurehead depicts a Japanese dragon, a symbol of imperial majesty. When Empress of Japan (I) was dismantled in 1926, this figurehead found itself on a scrap heap in North Vancouver.

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Original Empress of Japan (I) figurehead in Stanley Park before it was replaced with a replica.

VMM. Leonard McCann Archives. VMM Photo Collection. LM2006.1000.492. 193-.

Incensed by its cavalier casting-aside of a notable image of Vancouver’s pioneer maritime history, the publisher of the Province newspaper had it rescued and mounted on the foreshore of Stanley Park at the First Narrows, the entrance to Vancouver Harbour. There it sat from 1928 until 1958 when a fiberglass replica was commissioned as a replacement.

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Empress of Japan (I) figurehead being conserved. 

VMM. Leonard McCann Archives. VMM Photo Collection. LM2006.1000.500. 199-.

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The second photo is likely to be of Roy Waterman, then curator at Museum of Vancouver.

VMM. Leonard McCann Archives. VMM Photo Collection. LM2006.1000.500. 199-.Nick Yunge-Bateman

The decayed fragments of the original figurehead found their way into the basement of the new Vancouver Maritime Museum in 1965. There they sat until 1990, when the Museum of Vancouver conservator Roy Waterman was able to undertake the restoration of what you see here in the gallery today.

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Claridge Modelship Gallery at Vancouver Maritime Museum, showing Empress of Japan (I) figurehead.

Photo: Vancouver Maritime Museum


Along with the figurehead, we have a wide range of things in our collection related to the Empress of Japan (I). On display you can see the ships bell which is thought to have been cast in Japan and was rumored to have had $700.00 worth of silver added to its molten bronze before casting. This bell was one item from Empress of Japan that traveled afar and made its way to Blubber Bay on Texada Island to a limestone mine site. There it was installed in the schoolhouse tower and rung as the school bell. Later the school building became the Community Hall with the bell serving as the fire alarm warning. Finally in 1970 it was donated to us.

Also on display are two ship models, a clock, a barometre and one of the very few stainglass windows that survived the ship's scrapping in 1926. The Empress of Japan set a standard for luxurious interiours that was maintained to the end of the 'White Empresses' line. She was fitted out in high Victorian fashion and the First Class Dining Saloon contained white and gold paneling with oak trim, red leather seats, plush draperies and a set of painted windows. 

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Ship model of Empress of Japan (I) built for The Canadian Pacific Steamships by The Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. in Govan, Glasgow. Photo: Vancouver Maritime Museum


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