UMBRIA and her sister ETRURIA were the very last North Atlantic express steamers to be fitted with compound engines and almost the last with single screws. Both were built for Cunard by John Elder and Co. on the Clyde and the two sisters were identical in every respect. Each was registered at 7, 718 gross tons, measured 501 feet in length, with a 57 foot beam and was designed to steam at 19 knots. Their design also provided for them to be converted to Armed Merchant Cruisers in a national emergency, and they were further required to be able to maintain 18 knots for sixteen days. Completion of this pair of ships gave Cunard the best-balanced mail fleet on the Atlantic and, in one author's view, "no trans-Atlantic vessels have been more successful than these, the most powerful single-screw ships ever built." (Commander C.R. Vernon-Gibbs, Passenger Liners of the Western Ocean, 1952).
UMBRIA was launched on 26 June 1884 and on her trials, during which she traveled light, she astonished all observers by effortlessly achieving 21 knots instead of her designed maximum of 19. Clearing Liverpool on 1 November, 1884 for her maiden voyage to New York she made an excellent passage even thought she took longer to settle into her stride than did her sister ETRURIA. Thus, it was not until May 1887 that she took the "Blue Riband" for the fastest west-bound crossing, and then the following year for the east-bound journey. Between 1889 and 1891, the outward crossing times were steadily improved by both sisters and, in fact, all-round speeds continued to increase slightly as they grew older. Excessive vibration and propeller shaft problems were only to be expected in single-screw vessels of such power, and UMBRIA was disabled by shaft breakages in 1892 and again in 1893. Briefly chartered as a troop transport during the Boer War in 1900, UMBRIA remained extremely popular and in continuous service until laid up in 1908. She came out of reserve for three winter voyages (1909-10), but by then she was quite outclassed by the new generation of four-funneled leviathans and was broken up in 1910.