In November 1864, the three-masted barque Ellen Lewis departed Burrard Inlet for Adelaide, Australia, loaded with 277,000 feet of lumber and 16,000 fence pickets. The journey marked the beginning of international shipping at Vancouver’s port, which would soon become the hub of the western economy. The port became well established after the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886, and CP’s announcement a year later that it was launching service between Vancouver and the Orient, connecting ocean and inland trade. “With its north Pacific routes, the CPR had a shorter run to China and Japan than its American competitors, and was soon able to dominate the shipments of silk and tea, the most lucrative of the non-human cargoes of the day,” writes Michael Kluckner. The completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 was another great boon for the port, making it economically feasible to export grain and lumber from Vancouver to the east coast of the United States and Europe. Today, the port is Canada’s largest, supporting trade with more than 170 economies around the world. In 2016, 136 million tonnes of cargo moved through the port, valued at $200 billion.
In 1891, the CPR launched the first of its signature ocean liners, the Empress of India. “The Empresses were fast, reliable and luxurious, at least on the upper deck, and the flow of first-class tourists, mainly English, many travelling to see the empire on which the sun never set, added sophisticated to a fledgling Vancouver typified by mud puddles and board sidewalks,” writes Kluckner. Since the 1980s cruise ships have generated considerable activity in Vancouver’s harbour and a new Waterfront Convention Centre built for the 2010 Winter Olympics has given the port a greater diversity and vibrancy. Canada Place, built on the site of the CPR’s 1927 passenger terminal, Pier B-C, was opened in 1986 and expanded in 2002.
Before air travel became the preferred means of transportation, Vancouver’s harbour was the gateway for immigrants from the East. The federal government opened the Immigration Building in 1914 at the foot of Thurlow Street. The six-storey, cream-coloured brick structure was demolished in 1976. In May 1914, the harbour played host to the infamous Komagata Maru incident – in which 376 would-be immigrants from India arriving aboard a Japanese steamer were denied entry. The ship’s arrival challenged Canada’s ‘continuous journey’ law that was designed to keep Indian immigrants out of the country, even though they were British subjects. After immigration officials refused to let its passengers disembark, the ship was quarantined in the harbour for two months and then forced back to sea by the Canadian military. A monument in remembrance of the Komagata Maru incident was unveiled in 2012 in Coal Harbour.
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