The Valencia was far from the first ship to founder on Vancouver Island’s rocky lee shore—according to Neitzel, at least 56 ships and 711 lives had already been lost on the island’s west coast. But the horror of the 1906 Valencia shipwreck caused an international uproar and was tagged as the “most shameful incident in Canada’s maritime history.”
The San Francisco-registered Valencia was a 253-foot iron steamer, about 1,600 tons, licensed to carry goods and 286 passengers. The three-decker left that city on Saturday, January 20, 1906, bound for Victoria and Seattle with 169 passengers and crew. The weather was fine, but the seamanship was not. Captain Johnson managed the course initially, but ignorant of the northbound current, he missed the Umatilla lightship and continued well beyond the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait. He’d misinterpreted speed-over-the-ground with speed-through-the-water.
The Valencia hit rocks near midnight on January 22 south of Cape Beale. Starting with this catastrophe, everything that could go wrong, did. The weather had worsened with heavy rain. Big waves broke over the ship. Interior flooding killed the generator, plunging the ship into darkness. Confusion reigned. The shore behind the ship was a straight cliff. No boat drills had been held, so of the three lifeboats launched, only nine people made it ashore. Two lifeboats overturned—their occupants drowned or smashed on the rocks.
Survivors were able to find a telegraph cable and call for help. The Queen City and the City of Topeka arrived, as well as two tugs, but either through bad visibility, or fear of also being shipwrecked, none approached the wreck where 80 passengers were still clinging to the rigging. Eventually, the ships all left, leaving the remaining passengers to their fate. Queen City did collect a life raft with a few survivors.
Meanwhile, a shore party from Carmanah Light had been alerted to the shipwreck and set out on foot to affect a rescue. They took their time, stopping for a cup of tea. When they finally arrived on the cliffs behind Valencia, they made no effort to connect the rope they’d brought with the line the Valencia had shot ashore. Their later testimony revealed they thought it was useless to try. Thus they watched the ship break into pieces an hour later, spilling the remaining passengers into the icy water. All women and children aboard perished.
The hearings following the shipwreck were contentious, with excuses offered and blame passed around. But as Neitzel writes, “they were all guilty of breaking the unwritten law of the sea—providing every possible assistance to those in distress…”
Later, the Canadian government acted to save shipwreck survivors. What became known as the West Coast Trail was established, the telegraph beefed up and cabins with provisions built.
Neitzel had described the Valencia shipwreck in vivid detail, describing the suffering of the ship’s passengers, the myriad navigational errors, and the lack of rescue efforts. It’s a pity that it took such a catastrophe to create a few safeguards along the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”
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