A LENS ON VANCOUVER'S PAST
Walter Frost's Holland-America Line (1920-1975)
CPR Pier A
Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) terminus in Vancouver was built on a land grant provided to the CPR in exchange for completing Canada’s first transcontinental railway (Settlement Act, 1885). Its piers and wharves were located on Lot 541 (Granville tract) on the western part of the South Shore between Coal Harbour and Carrall Street. Running west to east, CPR piers were labeled A through H while freight sheds on its wharves were numbered 1 to 7.
Completed in 1911, CPR Pier A consisted of three single level freight sheds (a total of 60,000 sq ft) around three railway sidings on a 790 ft (240 m) wooden pier. Until the opening Pier B-C in 1927, Pier A served CPR’s transpacific liners thereby playing a crucial role in both the rapid and lucrative transport of raw silk across the Pacific and the CPR’s “All-Red Route”. The latter ensured that Her Majesty’s Mails travelled exclusively in Royal Mail Ships (RMS) or via British territory, i.e., CPR transcontinental trains. In 1968, the Vancouver Pile Driving Co. demolished the aging wooden structure that was Pier A after 57 years of service.
The Silk Trade
Between 1887 and 1935, the import of raw silk was extremely lucrative for the west coast ports, especially in its heyday of 1927 when over 154,000 bales valued at over $174 million (28% of the North American trade) flowed through Vancouver.[i]
Speed was essential. At $8.50 per pound, raw silk was of such immense value that insurance rates on a million-dollar shipment were calculated by the hour.[ii] Sped from Asia across the Pacific to Vancouver by steamship; the silk bales would be quickly loaded onto special dust-proof box cars and swiftly transported by train across the continent to New York City’s silk mills.
One such journey started in Yokohama on March 22, 1924, when the RMS Empress of Asia departed for Vancouver. Arriving on March 31st, stevedores, using hand trucks, quickly moved the bales from ship through Canada Customs onto the rail cars prepositioned on Pier A; loading at an average of 13.5 minutes per box-car. The silk train then raced to New York City arriving on April 4th just before midnight; 13 days, eight hours, and 13 minutes after leaving Yokohama.[iii]
Komagata Maru Incident
On May 23, 1914, the S.S. Komagata Maru arrived in Burrard Inlet from Hong Kong carrying 376 passengers, most being immigrants from Punjab, India, with the intent of docking at CPR Pier A. The passengers, all British subjects, were challenging the Continuous Passage regulation, which stated that immigrants must "come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship." The regulation had been brought into force in 1908 in an effort to curb Indian immigration to Canada. Other than 20 returning residents, the ship's doctor, and his family, who were granted admission to Canada, the remaining passengers were denied entry by the authorities. The crowded cargo ship was forced to moor about 500 m off-shore in Burrard Inlet.[iv] After the local authorities were rebuffed in their attempts to make the ship leave, the Royal Canadian Navy cruiser/training ship HMCS Rainbow was ordered to intervene. After some discussion with the passengers, who had taken over the vessel, those aboard Komagata Maru agreed to leave Vancouver only when supplies for the ship were provided.[v] Escorted from Vancouver by the Rainbow, the Komagata Maru sailed on July 23, 1914, destined for Budge-Budge, India. Here, 19 passengers were killed by gunfire upon disembarking and many others imprisoned.[vi]
[i] Vanterpool, A. Silk Trains of North America (Edmonton, AB: Alberta Pioneer Railway Association, 2010) p. 32
[ii] https://gatewaygazette.ca/silk-train-part-canadas-history/ accessed August 30, 2022
[iii] Vanterpool, A. Ibid., p. 33
[iv] http://komagatamarujourney.ca/ accessed August 28, 2022
[v] Johnston, William et al. The Seabound Coast: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Navy, 1867–1939. Vol. 1 (Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2010) pp. 289-299
[vi] http://komagatamarujourney.ca/ accessed August 28, 2022