1911 Sinking of SS Iroquois

North Sannich Online

Photograph of  Andrew Ollason's grave stone in Holy Trinity Cemetery.

Victim of the 1911 Sinking of SS Iroquois rests in Holy Trinity Cemetery:  Heroism of First Nations canoeist as they save lives in heavy seas.

Local residents are aware that many of our agricultural pioneers lie buried in the Holy Trinity cemetery.    What is not so well known is that our marine history is also represented in the church yard.   A small damaged obelisk marks the grave of Andrew Ollason who died on April 10, 1911 when the SS Iroquois foundered and sank soon after it left the wharf at Sidney.    The passenger ship, on its regular run to Saltspring, the Gulf islands and Nanaimo, had set off in 60 mph winds with improperly tied on cargo.  The ship began to list soon after it left the dock.  According to newspaper reports, as the water poured in after the vessel had capsized, the 28-year-old crew member from the Sheltand Islands struggled to go below to tie down a safety valve.  He hoped to prevent an explosion when the cold water hit the boiler.  Although he managed to get into a life boat, death came due to exposure before the boat reached shore.   Newspapers carried stories from the survivors; the deckhand in Ollason’s life boat described the tragic scene as he died.

 Many criticized the seasoned skipper and part owner of the shipping company, Captain A. A. Sears, for taking on so much poorly secured cargo -   which included 10 tons of phosphate fertilizer – and for setting out in such winds.  At least three people  who had come out from Victoria on the Victoria & Sidney Railway, intending to board the ship, decided against it when they saw the weather conditions.  One problem was the large amount of hay stowed on deck which shifted and acted like a sail as the already listing ship rolled on her side.  A complete passenger list didn’t exist but the number on board seems to have been 32 with 21 dying  and 11 surviving.  Four of the latter were crew and 7 passengers.   Captain Sears, who left the ship in a life boat while passengers were still struggling in the water, was subsequently charged and acquitted of manslaughter but his master’s certificate was revoked for life.

Among the passengers were Isabel and Edith Fenwick, who had recently started St. Margaret’s School in Victoria, and one of their teachers, Margaret Barton.  The three were going on a holiday to Salt Spring Island during the Easter holiday.  The sisters died, trapped in the superstructure of the ship which had broken lose but was swamped in the rough seas.   Margaret Barton’s rescue was the result of the heroism of three First Nations men, Bob Kluywhalen, Donat Charlie and William Tsouhalem,, who saw the disaster from Roberts Bay and immediately put out to sea. When the skilled canoeists reach her, Barton was clinging desperately to a swamped lifeboat; her hand had to be pried loose from the gunwale.   When she was later interviewed, she described the horror of seeing people drowning around her.  Sidney pioneer George Brethour tried to help in his boat but the rudder line snapped, leaving him adrift to watch the suffering.   Once she recovered, Margaret Barton headed St. Margaret’s School for many years.

The funeral of Andy Ollason at Holy Trinity Church was held two days later.  Over 100 mourners were present for this sad event; among them was a Miss Harrison to whom Andy had been engaged.    In 1977 divers visited the 66-year-old wreck and brought up the anchor which has been on display in Iroquois Park since 1981.

Diana Chown

An article by Brad Morrison about behind-the-scenes influence after the disaster can be seen on Saanich Voice Online.

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