She was built by Vulcan shipyards in Stettin and launched on 4 May 1897. She made her maiden voyage on 19 September of that year, from Bremerhaven to New York. In November 1906, she was struck broadside while trying to cross in front of the Royal Mail's Orinoco; five passengers on Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse were killed by the impact and a hole 21 meters (70 ft) wide by 8 meters (26 ft) high was ripped into her hull. An Admiralty Court found the accident to be entirely attributable to Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse.
In 1914 she was modified to take 3rd and 4th class fares only, in order to make the most of the large demand for emigrant passages from Europe to North America.