Melita Museum - Did You Know?

The S.S. Melita and the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company

The Canadian Pacific Railway, Canada’s first trans-continental railway was, as is commonly known, one of the most important infrastructure projects of a young nation, one that involves a tale of hard working, daring adventure, engineering marvels, short cuts, bribery, scandal, government interference and even rebellion and war. However, that is not the purpose of this week’s article, as interesting as it is. Instead I want to focus on the history of one of the CPR’s many side businesses, which included a telegraph system, a failed foray into radio, hotels and even an airline. But the CPR also operated one of Canada’s biggest steamship companies, the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, and one of it’s many ships over the years was named after Melita.
The CPSC started in the 1881 by Sir Cornelius Van Horne, the builder of the railway, with ships to ply the trans-Pacific trade between British Columbia and Asia. Three ships of the Cunard Line were hired by the CPR to test the feasibility of the new endeavour. When it was found to be profitable, CPR built their own ships, and founded the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. These ships, and most of the ships CP would later operate, were all given the name “Empress,” for example the Empress of China and the Empress of India. This is similar to how other shipping companies of the era named their ships in a uniform fashion. For example most ships of the Cunard line ended with -ia (Lusitania, Mauritania, Britannia) while the rival White Star line ended with -ic (Britannic, Olympic, and most famously, the Titanic).
In 1903, CP began operating ships between Halifax and Europe flying their house flag of six alternating squares of red and white on two rows. This made it possible to sail from Liverpool, the traditional port of the trans-Atlantic trade, to Hong Kong on ships and railroads of the CPR. This route was often known as the “All Red Route,” as red was the common colour given to the British Empire on maps of the time.
One of the most famous ships of the CP was the Empress of Ireland, which sank on May 29, 1914, in the Saint Lawrence River after colliding with a Norwegian ship, in heavy fog. Of the 1,477 on board, 1,012 lost their lives in Canada’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.
And this is where the S.S. Melita comes in. At first, it wasn’t even known as the Melita, simply as number 136367, because a British company, Barclay Curle & Co, was building it for the German Hamburg-American Line (HAPAG). With the outbreak of World War One, the unfinished hull, along with it’s sister, later to be called the S.S. Minnedosa, was sold to the CP, and launched on April 24, 1917. In January 1918, after the Harland and Wolff Shipyard, the same shipyard that built Titanic, had installed the engines, the Melita underwent trials, and was immediately requisitioned by the Royal Navy as a troopship. For the rest of the war, the Melita transported American soldiers to Europe, even being attacked by a U-boat in July, but escaped undamaged. After the war, the ship was involved in the mammoth undertaking of transporting American and Canadian soldiers back across the Atlantic, and shipping German prisoners of war that had been sent to North America back to their home. The CP lost 18 ships in World War One, including one called the Medora, a small, 5,135 ton ship, torpedoed in May 1918.
After fulfilling her war duty, the Melita was placed on the Liverpool-Montreal run until 1922, when it was placed on the Antwerp-Southampton-Montreal run until 1925. At this time, the Melita was registered at weighing 13,967 gross tons, 530 feet long and 67 feet wide, an average speed of 16 knots, and 386 Cabin class berths, 115 alternative third class, 331 permanent third class and 1098 portable third class berths. For the next decade, the Melita was a popular and historic ship, most famous for transporting 20,000 Mennonites escaping war torn Ukraine, many of them immigrating to Canada on CP ships.
In 1925, the Melita was withdrawn from service to be refitted, with the tonnage increased to 15,183 and superheaters installed, and some cabin spaces replaced with increased cargo room. When she returned to service, it was reported in the Glasgow Evening Times that the Melita transported $70,000 of silver foxes to Scotland (worth nearly a million dollars today), the largest amount ever transported between Canada and Scotland. The next year, the Melita was the 10,000th ship to enter Antwerp Harbor in 1926, and a large party was held to celebrate this achievement. The CPOS’s managing director in Belgium was even made a Knight in the Order of King Leopold!
After the Great Depression, and low cost cruises became popular, the Melita was transferred into this role, travelling to the Canary Islands and the Mediterranean on several voyages. In 1935, the Melita, along with her sister the Minnedosa, were both sold to an Italian company to be scrapped. However, Benito Mussolini and Fascist Italy stepped in at this point, and purchased both ships, renaming them the Liguria and the Piedmonte respectfully. They were used as troopships by the Italians, including a “mass emigration stunt” in 1938 with 17 liners to send thousands of Italian settlers to the colony of Libya. After the war broke out, the Liguria was reported to have been torpedoed by a British submarine while transporting troops to Albania, with a reported heavy loss of life, but the ship still survived, lucky in it’s second encounter with submarines in war.
But the lucky streak ended on January 1, 1941. A British air raid of Tobruk, Libya, set the Liguria on fire, and she was scuttled. In 1950, five years after the end of the war, the Liguria was floated again, and towed back to Italy to be scrapped. As one newspaper at the time commented: “It was somewhat ironic that she should end her days off the coast where previously she had cruised (as the Melita) with many happy holiday-makers.”
The Piedmonte was not much luckier. It was scuttled in 1943 at Messina, Sicily, and also raised and scrapped in 1949.
The Canadian Pacific Steamship Company continued to grow and prosper for years. The Empress of Australia and it’s Captain, Samuel Robinson, became famous around the world for his efforts in helping the city of Yokohama, Japan, during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The Empress of Australia even transported King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Canada in 1939 for their first Royal Tour of an overseas dominion of the British Empire, choosing a Canadian ship rather than a Royal Yacht or a ship of the Royal Navy. During World War Two, CP ships served in the Battle of the Atlantic, transporting food, supplies and soldiers across the ocean to aid a beleaguered Britain. In World War Two, the Canadian Pacific lost 19 ships in total.
By 1970, with the increasing dominance of air travel for trans-oceanic voyages, the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, renamed CP Ships, and became a purely cargo line, investing in container ships and tankers, establishing itself as the seventh largest carrier in the world, dominating the Atlantic trade. In 2005, CP Ships was sold to TUI AG, a German conglomerate that own Hapag-Lloyd, which was itself the company the S.S. Melita was originally built for.

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