The Empress of Japan.
Empress of Japan
Thousands of people who see the dragon figurehead
of the Empress of Japan in Stanley Park think it's the real
thing, but what you see in the park today is a fibreglass copy of
the original, whichbattered by the elements for 80 yearswas
tenderly restored by conservationists at Vancouver's Maritime Museum.
Much of what you read here is based on an article
on the figurehead that appeared some years ago in an issue of the
Vancouver Historical Society newsletter. The author was Leonard
G. McCann, curator emeritus at the museum, and the most knowledgeable
local person (by far!) on local marine history.
The Empress of Japan, McCann reminds us,
is one of the trio of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company's
first generation of 'White Empresses,' those ships that were the
company's final links in its drive to create an extension of its
trans-Canada railway system right through to the Orient and Australasia
. . . This ship was once Vancouver's one and major link with the
Orienta ship so lovely in appearance that school children
used to be taken down to see her pass in and out of the harbor on
her regular schedule, a schedule that was maintained from 1891 to
The Empress was built in Barrow, England,
and arrived in Vancouver on June 22, 1891. By the time the CPR retired
her in 1922, she had crossed the Pacific 315 timessetting
trans-Pacific speed records that were unchallenged during 22 years
of her active careerand steamed more than four million kilometres
(2.5 million miles.)
She swung at anchor in Vancouver Harbor for
four years, 1922 to 1926," McCann writes. "She was finally
purchased abroad but scrapped locally, being beached in the mud
on the north shore of Burrard Inlet where more than two years were
spent in taking her apart. Dismaying tales are told about indifferent
workmen tearing off wall hangings (which had been left on her) for
use as rags, and of mahogany panelling being cast overboard into
A few sentimental and historically-minded
Vancouverites descended on the wreckage to salvage what they couldthus
there is a house in West Vancouver that has some of her leaded-glass
bookcases installed in its den; there is another in Shaughnessy
that possesses some portions of her staircase; a commercial building
in North Vancouver had some of her pressed-tin ceiling panels installed
in its own ceiling (the building has gone now), and some of her
painted glass salon windows are feature pieces in private hands.
And the figurehead? It was dumped, along with its 18-foot (5.5
metre) trailboards and left for destruction.
But not for long. Frank Burd, publisher of The
Daily Province at the time, learned of the figurehead's disposal
and, with a handful of like-minded people, decided to rescue it.
It has been rumored, says McCann's article, that
a number of reporters of the Province of that day suddenly
found themselves with a rather different assignment: scavenging
a dump for pieces of a large wood carving and removing same.
The dragon was found and, with the co-operation
of the park board, the Province was able to install it on
a concrete pedestal overlooking the First Narrows entrance to the
harbor. A plaque was attached, stating the figurehead was a gift
to the citizens of Vancouver. It was November, 1927.
There it sat, for decades, neglected except for
an occasional slap of paintpaint that bore no relationship
to the dragon's original color. As the years passed, the figurehead
began to fall apart again. This time, Norman Hacking, long-time
marine editor of the Province, became involved. The result
was the removal of the figurehead and its replacement in 1960 with
the fibreglass copy. (After nearly 50 years, the copy itself is
starting to look a bit haggard.) The original sat in the back of
the works yard at Stanley Park for a time, then finally was taken
to the warmth and security of the Maritime Museum basement, where
it lay uncared for for 14 years.
In 1974, finally, work began to restore it. The
dragon was moved for the first time with care, interest and
respect, McCann writes, to the laboratory of the conservation
division that serves the three institutions that make up the museums
complex, (with) Roy Waterman as chief conservator and Marle-Noel
Challan-Beval as assistant.
They had their work cut out for them. Literally. The core of the
figurehead was completely taken out (it was infested with dry rot,
wet rot, carpenter ants, etc.) and all the various layers of mis-colored
paint were carefully removed. One advantage of the removal of the
core is that the figurehead's immense weight was reduced. This made
it easier to work on.
Then there will come a time, McCanns
article continues, of trying to assemble (approximately) this
gigantic, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle so as to see what actually
is missing . . . Based on the pattern and flow of the design of
the remaining structure and on detailed enlargements from old photographs,
replacement pieces will be created to fill the voids.
is the expectation of the Vancouver Maritime Museum that it will
mark the centenary of the CPR (February of 1981) with a special
exhibitionand that pride of place will be given to the restored
figurehead of the first Empress of Japan.
Today, visitors to the Museum are able to admire at leisure this
big, colorful and dramatic piece of local marine history.
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