Ocean Life  

The Valencia
Agony of the Valencia

Location: Victoria
Date: January 22, 1906
Informant: T. W. Paterson
Source: Paterson, T. W. British Columbia Shipwrecks. Langley, B.C.: Stagecoach Publishing, 1976. 72-76. Used with permission from the author.

In terms of lives lost, there have been greater marine disasters than that of the 1,600-ton, 24-year-old American steamship Valencia 77 years ago. However, in terms of human tragedy-of sheer, unadulterated horror-there can have been few wrecks of equal magnitude.

    -T.W. Paterson.

"It was in the blackness of a winter night, lashed by a howling gale and blinded by freezing sleet, that the fine steamer Valencia crashed onto the jagged rocks of the west coast of Vancouver Island near Cape Beale, It was 15 minutes before midnight, on January 22, 1906. In the next 48 hours 117 persons perished miserably in one of the worst marine horrors known to that strip of coast..."

"There were other shipping disasters with even more lives lost, but never had such a catastrophe occurred under such circumstances; when rescue vessels standing off, impotent to give aid, as pounding helpless men and women from the rigging to destruction; and high above the crumbling and shapeless Valencia, men watched helplessly as passengers and crewmen died before their eyes..."

    -Bruce McKelvie, Dean of British Columbia's historians, of the wreck of the SS Valencia.

The Valencia, bound for Seattle, cleared San Francisco in fair weather, only to encounter dense fog at Cape Mendocino. For seven hours she inched forward with whistle blowing; three miles east of Pachena Point Captain Johnston ordered Boatswain Tim McCarthy to prepare two leads for sounding. Using the Thompson sounding machine, they detected no bottom at 250 fathoms.

Only hours later, the ship was carried 20 miles off course by high winds and powerful currents, where it ran aground. McCarthy had testified at the inquest that the engines had initially remained functioning. Captain Johnston ordered his crew of twelve to lower all seven lifeboats to the saloon rail. This was to enable the passengers, who were now crowding the rails, to board the lifeboats.

Despite his orders, the lifeboats were immediately lowered into the darkness below. McCarthy recounted:

"...Most of them were full of passengers and there was a strain on the tackles. Of these four boats, only one, No. 1, got away from the ship's side. There was a heavy sea running; was breaking almost to the bridge, and I am doubtful if those boats could have got away even in daylight. The captain turned the searchlight all around. I saw No. 2 boat off at some little distance; then someone pulled the whistle and the electric light went out.

I saw No. 1 boat smash alongside. There would be 15 or 20 people in her. I had a ladder thrown over, also some ropes and I saw one man climb aboard."

As the ship heeled sharply to port, two of the three remaining lifeboats (no. 6 and 7) were launched. Almost one hundred people were left stranded on board, clutching the ship's rigging or huddled on the hurricane deck. By this time only the social hall and the weather side of the saloon remained dry. As Captain Johnston fired off rockets into the night, the crew tried to reassure the passengers of imminent rescue.

The first person to learn of the disaster was the Cape Beale lighthouse keeper, Thomas Paterson, who received the first of the survivors to leave the Valencia. He flashed word to Victoria via telegraph, which resulted in the immediate response of three ships, the Queen, the City of Topeka, and the powerful tug Salvor.

Unfortunately, the rescue fleet realized on their arrival that nothing could be done for the doomed souls on board the Valencia. The ship was impaled on rocks at the base of sheer cliffs, and had buckled by the onslaught of powerful waves. Despite this, the tug Salvor made a desparate attempt at a rescue, and was able to approach to within a half mile before retreating. Her engines were simply no match for the powerful current which threatened to pull her onto the same rocks which claimed the Valencia.

Years after, former officer of the Salvor, Captain Ernest Jordan, recalled that agonizing rescue attempt for Mr. McKelvie, stating: "When it was found that the vessel could not approach close enough to shoot a line aboard the wreck, I offered to try and get closer in a lifeboat to, if possible, float a line down to the Valencia. I was not permitted to make the attempt, which even at the time I realized offered but a hundred-to-one chance of success."

Thus Salvor had retreated, to wait, with the equally frustrated Queen and Topeka, for the inevitable. "It was terrible to stand off there and watch the wreck break up, and see the people who were in the rigging drop off into the boiling sea," said Jordan.

The next morning, Bosun McCarthy's bid for safety from the stranded vessel came when, upon seeing that several of those who had left the ship earlier had reached shore, Captain Johnston asked him if he would take the remaining boat, No. 5, to the beach with a lifeline. They were lowered into the sea by Captain Johnson (who, all survivors agreed, carried out his duties heroically to the very end), and, after considerable difficulty, cast off for shore.

Lifeboats from the Valencia

"We kept outside the breakers but at times could not see the shore; it was so thick and we cold not find a place to land.

"I came to some rocks which I took to be the Durkin Rocks off Tatooche (Tatoosh Island, Cape Flattery) and finally a heavy sea hit us and two of the men lost their oars and we had only two left (having broken one in leaving the ship). We pulled a little farther and one of the men said he thought it was the Vancouver Island shore. Finally we made a landing in a place I afterwards found to be between Pachena Bay and Cape Beale."

When they reached shore, McCarthy and an exhausted crew began a two-hour hike along the rugged shore to Cape Beale. Lightkeeper Thomas Paterson alerted Victoria by telegraph, as three Clo-oose settlers hiked overland to the scene with ropes and supplies in an attempt to rescue Valencia's company by land. Sadly, by the time they reached the cliffs towering above the ship, only 60-odd persons remained in her rigging and on her flooded poop deck.

Earlier, Second Mate Pettersen and six others had escaped on a raft, several men and all of the women having refused to leave the ship after witnessing what had happened to so many others. When the Topeka picked them up, Pettersen and comrades were the last to escape from the Valencia, another raft having made its break previously, and eventually drifting ashore.

When the rescue party reached the cliffs, they found a lifeline snagged in the rocks. However, upon reeling it in, the thin hawser snapped-even as the unfortunates below cheered to their apparent salvation. Captain Johnson's final rocket to fire another line ashore had been used up long ago; all that the rescue crew could do was to join in the final death watch of the doomed Valencia.

Finally-40 horrendous hours after the Valencia struck-it was over, the last of her doomed company plucked from her collapsed rigging. The most infamous shipwreck in provincial history was ended, with a death toll of 117.

The Valencia
In 1933, as a grim footnote to the tragedy, No. 5 lifeboat was found drifting in Barkley Sound. Adding to the eerie-ness of this was that the boat's paint was still in excellent condition, in spite of 33 years of exposure to the elements. More than once it had been rumoured that lifeboats, manned by skeletons, had been sighted by fishermen.

Another account surfaced five months after the disaster, when Indian fisherman Clanewah Tom and his wife, scouring the adjacent beaches in their canoe, were attracted by the gaping mouth of a sea cave. Tom swam inside, only to beat a hasty retreat. Rushing to authorities, he claimed to have seen a lifeboat inside the cave, afloat and manned by eight skeletons. Upon hearing Clanewah Tom's breathless account, Carmanah lightkeeper W. P. Daykin dispatched his two sons to investigate. Even the Quadra, a lighthouse tender, had made an attempt at locating the mystery lifeboat. But they could never re-locate the cave which Tom had found.

A yellowing account from an old Vancouver Province noted: "Discussion arose as to whether this boat was one of the Valencia's or whether it solved the mystery of the missing men of the King David. When this British ship was wrecked at Bajo Point, Nootka Sound, in the previous December, a boat's crew left for Cape Beale to seek help. The rest of the crew stayed on the rocks and after 33 days there marooned, were taken off by a passing vessel. The boat's crew was never seen or heard of again."

Similar to the infamous Flying Dutchman legend of South Africa, the Valencia horror has been seen as a ghost ship by the West Coast marine fraternity for the last 70 years.

In 1910 the Seattle Times reported a specter which had been observed in Vancouver Island's Graveyard of the Pacific: "During the past summer, persistent rumors were brought into Seattle by sailors on vessels frequently in and out of the cape, of a phantom ship seen off the dangerous coast of Vancouver Island.

"They said it resembled the ill-fated Valencia, which went down in those waters a few, short years ago with more than 100 souls, and that they could vaguely see human forms clinging to her masts and rigging. On some occasions the spectacle seemed immobile, and again the mystery was accentuated by the fate that the phantom moved steadily with the ship of those who watched, maintaining its relative position perfectly. Again it leaped upon the rocks where the real ship met destruction..."

Monte Cristo


SS Ericsson

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