“SS Abyssinia,” CP Steamship Set Trans-Pacific Record in 1887
The first passenger ship to dock at Vancouver from the distant Orient, the SS Abyssinia also set a speed record for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company.
The rail business was good for Canadian Pacific Railway in the mid-1800s, so good that broad expansion was ahead. Carrying freight and passengers, rail service across Canada was a mainstay. It was nigh time to dip into another mode of carriage – trans-Pacific steamships.
Calling the new venture Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, three “Empress” class luxury vessels were under construction for the firm. While waiting for the new ships, the railway’s General Manager William Van Horne acquired three older vessels to get the fledgling business underway, the SS Parthia, SS Batavia and the SS Abyssinia. Formerly Cunard vessels, the ships were obtained from Guion Lines and ready to sail. Van Horne’s new routes included round trips departing Vancouver for exotic ports in the distant Orient.
SS Abyssinia Was a Sleek, Fast Ship
The Steamship Abyssinia was well accustomed to the waves of ocean waters. Launched on March 3, 1870, the Abyssinia was built the J. & G. Thomson & Company of Glasgow, Scotland. Their customer was the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, later known as the world-famous Cunard Steam Ship Company. The Abyssinia was magnificent. “She weighed 3,376 gross tons, had a length of 364 feet and a beam of 42 feet,” said Roger Kreuz’s “Immigrant Ship Information.” Along with “one funnel, three masts, and a single crew,” added Kreuz, the steam-powered ship could slice through ocean waters at 13 knots.
A luxury ship of the era, the Abyssinia was constructed with first-class staterooms for 120 passengers and steerage rooms for another 1,068. “She and her sister ship, the Algeria, were the first Cunard ships fitted with bathrooms (one on each side of the ship),” noted Kreuz. The Abyssinia left Liverpool, England on May 24, 1870 on her maiden voyage, first to Queenstown and then on to New York City. Sold to Guion Lines as a mail ship in 1880, the liner eventually became part of the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company (CPSC).
Steamship Cargo Bound for Europe from Orient
The SS Abyssinia was chartered with two other ships “to Sir William Van Horne to begin steamship service in the Pacific,” according to “Development and Design” of the site SS-Abyssinia. With “22 first-class and 80 steerage passengers… she required only 13 days to reach Vancouver from Yokohama, arriving there on 13 June 1887.” Bearing a cargo of mail, silk and tea from Japan, the SS Abyssinia made history on that date as the first ship from the Orient to dock at the port of Vancouver. She also set the record for speed, making the trip in 13 days. The journey of the freight continued. The cargo was loaded onto rail cars leaded for Montreal and New York City, then transferred to another ship bound for London, England for delivery two weeks later.
Providing regular service, the Abyssinia travelled the Japan-Hong Kong-Vancouver route for four years. On the launching of the three luxurious white Empress liners by Canadian Pacific in 1891 – RMS Empress of China, RMS Empress of India and RMS Empress of Japan – the Abyssinia was returned to Guion Lines. “Her first eastbound return trip cleared New York on 13 December with 57 passengers and 88 crew with various cargo including cotton,” said the SS-Abyssinia site. Five days later, a fire engulfed the cargo hold, and the crew was unable to quench the spreading late-night flames.
Abandon Ship! SS Abyssinia Ablaze and Sank
“Captain G.S Murray ordered the ship to be abandoned,” stated Chris Cunard on Chris’ Cunard Page: History of Cunard’s Abyssinia. Sailing nearby and seeing the dark, billowing smoke, the German liner Spree rescued the passengers and crew by late afternoon the next day. No lives were lost in the disaster. The Abyssinia sank to the bottom of the dark depths off the coast of Newfoundland.
Setting two records on her first trans-Pacific run, the Abyssinia made history for William Van Horne and the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. Van Horne was appointed President of the Canadian Pacific company in 1888, and he was knighted for his innovative work in 1894. The CPSC continues today under a different owner. One hundred and eighteen years after opening its Pacific shipping lines, CP Ships was acquired by Hapag-Lloyd, a division of German company TUI-AG in October 2005.
- Kreuz, Roger, Roger Kreuz’s Immigrant Ship Information Accessed June 7, 2011
- “Development and Design,” SS-Abyssinia Accessed June 7, 2011
- Cunard, Chris, Chris’ Cunard Page: History of Cunard’s Abyssinia Accessed June 7, 2011
- “Sir William C. Van Horne,” Ontario Historical Plaques Accessed June 9, 2011
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in June 2011. Copyright Susanna McLeod