It was an appalling loss. The fire which swept through the waterfront of Saint John New Brunswick on 22 June 1931 caused an estimated $10 million in damage. The entire west side waterfront was destroyed. The losses included 17 freight sheds, the immigration shed, the harbour pilot-boat, a number of fishing schooners, over 100 railway cars, two lives, a fire truck, several houses and a former Northumberland Strait steamer – the S.S. Empress.
The Empress had been built for the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company in 1906 at the Neptune Works of Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At 215 feet in length and 34 feet in breadth she was the largest steamship that the company ever owned. Rated at 1342 tons and with a capacity of 500 passengers she more than met the Island company’s needs.
With the development of efficient railway systems in the maritimes the transportation patterns of Prince Edward Island changed. The shortest crossing was from Summerside to Pointe du Chene in New Brunswick rather than the longer Charlottetown to Pictou route. With the opening of the European and North American Railway service from Moncton to Shediac and its eventual extension to Saint John and linking with the Intercolonial Railway connecting the area with Ontario and Quebec it was the preferred route for travellers heading west and south. At Saint John there were links to cross-border railways as well as a speedy steamer service to Boston. The Empress was built to serve this daytime short route and there were only a few private staterooms provided. Passengers were accommodated in a large deckhouse on the awning deck which also contained a Post Office, Ticket Office, Captain’s room and a large saloon. A special ladies cabin as well as a cozy smoking room completed the facilities. Ample ventilation and steam heating gave a measure of comfort in the variable conditions of the passage. The propulsion was provided by twin screw triple expansion engines with two large boilers.
The launch of the steamer was on 7 April 1906 and there was a considerable degree of interest in how long it would be before the fit-out and passage across the Atlantic would take. The general merchants Beer and Goff capitalized on this interest by a contest which offered a prize if free tea to the person guessing nearest to the time it would take the Empress to get from England to Prince Edward Island. The only catch was that you had to buy at least a pound of “Island Blend Tea” to make your guess.
By all accounts (or by lack of accounts to the contrary) the S.S. Empress served on the route without incident for ten years. It was mostly on the Pointe du Chene route but she also travelled from Charlottetown to Pictou when the Northumberland was unavailable because of maintenance.
The Empress was the first of the Charlottetown Steam Navigation ships to be directly effected by the “continuous steam communication” which would be provided by the Canadian Government rail-car ferry S.S.Prince Edward Island. Even before the port facilities at Port Borden and Cape Tormentine it was obvious that the subsidies which had kept the Steam Navigation Company alive, if not profitable, would either be reduced or disappear completely once the government-operated service began and the Company officials began looking for buyers for their ships.
The Canadian Pacific Railway ran a service from Saint John New Brunswick to Digby Nova Scotia connecting with their Dominion Atlantic Railway running from Halifax to Yarmouth. In 1916 they purchased the S.S. Empress to replace the aging steamer Yarmouth and after minor modifications placed the Empress on the Bay of Fundy route.
Fifteen years later it may have been simply bad luck that she was tied to the Saint John wharf when the fire broke out. The CPR had commissioned a new boat for the route, the S.S. Princess Helene in 1930. She was larger than the Empress and in keeping with changing transportation needs, was fitted out to carry up to fifty automobiles. The Empress was tied to the Saint John wharf awaiting a decision as to her fate.
The Empress’s passenger accommodation and engines were destroyed in the fire but she was not sunk. She was sold to the Dominion Coal Company in 1934 and registered as a hulk before she disappeared from the record, probably broken up for scrap.