The Empress of Canada Hard Aground at Albert Head BC

by John M. MacFarlane 2012

Empress of Canada

The Empress of Canada was a very large passenger liner for her time, owned by Canadian Pacific Steamships. She measured 21,517 tons; 191.10m x 23.74 m /627’ x 77.9 feet (length x breadth); with three funnels, two masts, a cruiser stern; powered by six steam turbine engines, twin screws, and cruising at 18 knots. She regularly transited the Pacific route between the west coast of Canada and the Far East until 1939.

The Empress departed Southampton England on September 18th 1929 for a voyage with ports of call that included Cherbourg to New York then to the west coast of North America via the Panama Canal for stops in San Francisco, Vancouver and Victoria, BC. Most of her passengers had been picked up two days before when she called at San Francisco CA.

Empress of Canada

The Empress of Canada hard aground with the tugs Salvage King, Burrard Chief and Hopkins working to move her back into deeper water. (Photo MMBC 993.017.2892)

On the morning of October 13th, 1929 as she was approaching William Head to undergo inspection at the Quarantine Station she ran aground at Albert Head. Mrs. James Rainey witnessed the event while standing on the back porch of her house with a group of friends, her home overlooking the water. Mrs. Rainey described the scene:

" We could hear the Canada’s whistles blowing continually. The ship kept on in the dense fog for a couple of hundred yards and went aground in Homer’s Bay, with her nose fifty feet or so from McIllwaine's Point and her stern 150 feet from the rocks opposite our house. She just missed William Head Quarantine Station in the thick fog and passed Goat Island. We could hear no commotion on board, everybody seemed to take matters calmly. It was just before noon that she grounded, and if a southeasterly wind doesn’t blow up, she may be in no immediate danger."

The Empress of Canada remained fast for a considerable part of her length and developed a starboard list. The tugs Salvage King, Burrard Chief and Hopkins worked together for two days to move her off the rocks. There was, for two days, much concern that a southeasterly gale might come up, in which case she would doubtless have been lost. Fortunately the weather remained favourable. She was moved to the graving dock in Esquimalt as Yarrow Ltd. secured the contract to undertake repair work.

Empress Canada

The Empress of Canada in the Government Graving Dock at Esquimalt BC (Photo MMBC_PE–4K)

Following repairs at the Esquimalt graving dock the Empress of Canada returned to her trans–Pacific run. As a result of this accident the Canadian Government erected a lighthouse and fog signal at Albert Head.

During the Second World War she was converted to a troop carrier and on 14 March 1943, bound from Durban South Africa to England, she was torpedoed and sunk by the Italian submarine Leonardo da Vinci, at latitude 01 13 S, longitude 09 57E, approximately 400 miles south of Cape Palmas, West Africa; with the loss of 392 lives.

Author’s Note: I thank the Maritime Museum of British Columbia for the use of the images from their collection.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2012) The Empress of Canada Hard Aground at Albert Head BC. 2012.

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