On Monday, January 22, 1906, the coastal passenger liner SS Valencia, en route from San Francisco to Seattle with 108 passengers and 65 crew aboard, passed the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in foul weather, and ran aground on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. The ship was on a reef, trapped between sheer rock cliffs and pounding breakers. Uncharted rocks and fierce storms made it impossible for rescue vessels to approach from seaward. Scores of passengers drowned when their lifeboats were wrecked or capsized in the surf. Over the next 36 hours, terrified people huddled on the hurricane deck or clung to the rigging as huge waves slowly broke the ship apart. Finally, as rescuers watched, horrified and powerless, a huge wave swept the remaining passengers and crew into the sea. There were 37 survivors, but 136 persons perished in one of the most tragic maritime disasters in Pacific Northwest history.
The SS Valencia was 1,598-ton, 252-foot, iron-hulled passenger steamer built by the reputable William Cramp and Sons shipyard in Philadelphia in 1882. The ship had three cargo holds and four watertight compartments protecting the engine and boiler room, but was not fitted with a double bottom and her bulkheads were alleged to be insubstantial. The Valencia had a cruising speed of 11 knots and was licensed to carry 286 passengers. She carried seven lifeboats with a capacity of 181 persons, three life rafts with a capacity of 54 person, 368 life preservers and a Lyle line-throwing gun with 1,500 feet of manila line. When the Valencia was inspected on January 6, 1906, all of her equipment was accounted for and in good working order.
The Valencia was owned by the Pacific Coast Steamship Company who purchased it from the Pacific Packing and Navigation Company in 1902. The vessel was primarily engaged on the route between California and Alaska. But, in January 1906, she was diverted to the San Francisco-Seattle run, temporarily replacing the SS City of Puebla, laid up for repairs in San Francisco. The ship’s new master was Captain Oscar M. Johnson, who had been with the company 12 years, working his way up from quartermaster.
On Saturday at 11:20 a.m., January 20, 1906, the Valencia left San Francisco in good weather bound for Victoria, B.C., and Seattle. On board were 108 passengers, nine officers and 56 crewmen. The ship reached Cape Mendocino, 190 miles north of San Francisco, early Sunday morning. Then the weather began to deteriorate, with constant rain and haze. Mariners call it “thick” weather. That was the last land or light seen by the Valencia until she wrecked on Vancouver Island.
The weather remained thick with strong winds blowing from the southwest. The Valencia was forced to navigate by dead reckoning, using compass courses and approximate distances sailed, to determine the ship’s position. Captain Johnson reckoned the Valencia would reach the Umatilla Lightship around 9:30 p.m. on Monday, January 22, 1906. Then the quartermaster would start to take soundings to determine their position relative to the coastline. But a following wind and a strong three-knot northern current positioned the vessel more than 20 miles farther north than expected. The ship passed the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and, at 11:50 p.m., went onto Walla Walla Reef at Shelter Bight, 11 miles southeast of Cape Beale, on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.
A Night of Wind and Rain
It was high tide when the Valencia went aground, with rain, strong southeast winds blowing 25 to 35 miles an hour and heavy swells coming in from the ocean. First the ship struck a rock a few hundred yards offshore, rupturing the bottom of the hull and flooding the middle cargo hold. Then a large wave lifted the Valencia over the rock, driving her inshore. As waves swung the ship around, Captain Johnson, believing the ship would sink, ordered her beached, stern first. The vessel wound up on the reef, with the bow toward the open ocean, in about four fathoms of water, less than 100 yards from shore.
The coastline was a continuous 100-foot sheer rock cliff constantly pounded by heavy surf. Proceeding along the shoreline was impossible, and the top of the bluff was covered with trees and dense underbrush. A telephone/telegraph line, following a crude trail blazed through the forest, had been strung in the trees linking the Carmanah Light Station to Cape Beale and Bamfield Creek. The Valencia was trapped in an uninhabited wilderness with no means of communication or escape.
Panicked Actions and Errors
As a precaution, Captain Johnson ordered the crew to lower six lifeboats from the hurricane (uppermost) deck to the saloon deck and made fast to the rail, with no order to abandon ship. When the engines stopped, the electricity went out, leaving the ship in total darkness. The passengers, in a mild panic, began boarding the lifeboats, calling out to the deck hands to lower away. In the darkness and confusion, the davit crews, unable to determine if the orders were official, began launching the lifeboats. Within a half hour all six boats were gone.
One lifeboat had been loaded beyond capacity and the aft davit broke away, spilling more than 21 persons into the water. Everyone in the boat drowned. While lowering two of the lifeboats, one end hung up in the falls (an accident called “cockbilling”), upending the boats and dumping about 25 people into the sea. One crewman was rescued; all the others perished. Three lifeboats, carrying approximately 50 persons, were successfully launched; one disappeared, her fate unknown, and the other two capsized in the huge breakers. Only 12 men made it to relative safety, the others either drowned or were dashed against the rocks.
One survivor clambered onto a large rock near shore, only to be swept away by a large wave hours later. Two survivors gained entrance to a shallow cave, but the rising tide forced them onto the face of the cliff where they fell to their deaths. Nine survivors reached shore about 500 yards northwest but out of sight of the wreck. The party spent the night huddled among the rocks. At dawn on Tuesday, they climbed the 100-foot cliff.
Disaster by Light of Day
Early Tuesday morning, January 23, 1906, the Valencia started to break apart. Huge waves were breaking over the bow, pounding the forward house and gradually destroying the upper works of the vessel. At about 8:00 a.m., Captain Johnson called for a volunteer crew to launch the last lifeboat. The plan was to land on the beach, return to the ship overland and receive a lifeline for the breeches buoy. The lifeboat, manned by Boatswain Timothy J. McCarthy and five crewmen, was launched successfully, made its way through the breakers into the open sea, then steered northwest looking for a place to land.
About 9:00 a.m., the Lyle line-throwing gun was set up on the hurricane deck in preparation for rescue. Two lines were fired; one became tangled and immediately broke, the other was successfully launched over the precipitous cliff into the trees. A third line was kept in reserve as their last hope.
A Wrong Turn
Meanwhile, the nine survivors, led by Frank F. Bunker (who'd been en route to Seattle to become assistant superintendent of schools), discovered the Carmanah-Cape Beale telephone line strung in the trees on top of the bluff. Believing the Valencia had run aground on the Washington Coast, they decided to turn left (toward Cape Flattery) for help. Had the Bunker Party turned right and traveled a short distance, they could have received a lifeline shot from the Lyle line-throwing gun. The Valencia’s stern was fewer than 250 feet from the top of the cliff and a breeches buoy could have been rigged, rescuing the remaining passengers and crew.
The Bunker Party followed the telephone line with great difficulty through the dense forest and across swollen streams, eventually arriving at a lineman’s shack on the west side of the Darling River about 2:00 p.m. While searching for food, Frank Bunker found a telephone and connected it to the circuit. After repeated failures, he finally established communications with the Carmanah Light Station, giving the outside world the first news of the disaster. Carmanah relayed the information to Bamfield, who then cabled the information to Victoria, B.C. The Valencia had been on the reef for 15 hours and it would be many more hours before rescue vessels arrived.
McCarthy’s lifeboat finally landed about 12:30 p.m. on the western shore of Pachena Bay about eight miles northwest of the wreck, but the men were unable to proceed back to the ship through the dense forest. The crew found a lifesaving trail on the beach and sign reading “Three miles to Cape Beale.” This was their first indication the Valencia wrecked on Vancouver Island, not the Washington Coast as everyone believed. They hiked up the trail to the Cape Beale Light Station, arriving about 3:00 p.m. The station keeper, informed of the Valencia’s condition and location, telephoned Bamfield but news of the wreck had already been received from Carmanah several minutes earlier.
The wind moderated and the sea was calmer on Tuesday afternoon. Two crew members made separate attempts to swim ashore with a lifeline, but the fierce undertow and waves strewn with dead bodies and wreckage, made the journey perilous. Neither swimmer made it to shore and, exhausted, had to be hauled back to the ship.
Late Tuesday afternoon, three men from Carmanah Point, government lineman David Logan, assistant station keeper Philip C. Daykin, and fur trapper Joseph D. Martin, formed a rescue party and proceeded overland toward the Valencia, a distance of about 18 miles. They were unable to cross the swollen Klanawa River in the dark and had to wait for daylight before continuing.
Disaster's Second Night
Towards evening, the strong east winds, heavy ocean swells, and rain returned. On Tuesday night the Valencia’s survivors congregated on the hurricane deck with some climbing into the rigging. The crew made a crude shelter of tarpaulins to protect the women and children and several of the men stayed in the last dry cabin on the saloon deck. Waves pounded the Valencia against the reef throughout the night, gradually destroying her hull. By early morning, most of the forward upper works had broken away and the aft cabins on the saloon deck were under water. The entire ship’s company was now forced to occupy the hurricane deck or climb into the rigging. Wind, rain and heavy seas continued.
Meanwhile in Seattle, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company (PCSC) received a message from their agent in Victoria, B.C., about 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, stating the Valencia had gone aground on Vancouver Island, somewhere between Cape Beale and Carmanah Point. General Manager James E. Pharo attempted to dispatch ocean-going tugboats, but none were available. The Puget Sound Tugboat Company said there were tugboats at Neah Bay, but unfortunately the telephone line was down and they were out of contact.
The PCSC passenger liner SS Queen, outbound from Seattle to San Francisco, was in Victoria, B.C., boarding passengers. Pharo ordered her master, Captain N. E. Cousins, to discharge the passengers and proceed toward the scene of the wreck. Four master mariners, acquainted with Vancouver Island’s coast, and an experienced Puget Sound pilot went along on the rescue mission. The ship arrived off Carmanah Point about 10:00 p.m., cruising the area until daylight.
Another PCSC steamship, the SS City of Topeka, was in Seattle discharging cargo. Pharo ordered her master, Captain Thomas H. Cann, to stop discharging and prepare to depart for the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. Pharo and Captain James B. Patterson, the company’s port captain, went with the Topeka, along with a doctor, two nurses, medical supplies, 17 extra seamen, an insurance claims adjuster, and the press. The ship finally left Seattle about 10:00 p.m.
Hope and Despair
On Wednesday morning, January 24, 1906, Carmanah Light Station advised the Queen that the wreck was about 18 miles up the coast near Pachena Point. The Queen, accompanied by the Canadian salvage steamer Salvor and tugboat Czar, located the Valencia about 9:30 a.m. Captain Cousins saw survivors on the hurricane deck and in the rigging, but the Queen, a large 300-foot vessel with a 21-foot draft, was unable to approach closer than a mile. The ocean bottom was uncharted in this area and the sea was too rough. The Czar, a small ocean-going tug, made a run toward the wreck but started shipping water and withdrew. At about 10:15 a.m., the Salvor and Czar left for Bamfield to organize an overland rescue party. Shortly thereafter, the weather thickened and the Queen lost sight of land and the Valencia.
Meantime, the Valencia’s crew spotted the Queen and fired three shots from the Lyle gun to attract her attention. The ship had only two life rafts, one having been washed overboard. At 10:00 a.m., the first life raft, with only 10 men aboard, was launched and rowed out through the surf without much difficulty. Most of the survivors, believing that rescue was imminent, refused to take the risk. The second life raft was launched but stayed tied to the ship for 15 minutes while the crew urged the women to get aboard, declaring it was their last chance. The women refused and the raft left the Valencia with a full compliment of 18 men. As the life raft departed into the waves, the women sang "Nearer My God to Thee." Using four oars and pieces of wreckage for paddles, the rowers guided the raft through the breakers, heading toward the Queen.
The City of Topeka arrived in the vicinity about 11:00 a.m. relieving the Queen. The Topeka was a smaller ship with a shallower draft and had been specially equipped for the rescue mission. Pharo told Captain Cousins of the Queen to return to Victoria, B.C., board her passengers, and proceed to San Francisco. It was a controversial decision that cost Pharo his job. Although several other vessels were arriving at the scene to augment the rescue effort, critics felt both ships should have been used to search the water for survivors.
The Final Catastrophe
On Wednesday morning, the rescue party from the Carmanah Light Station crossed the Klanawa River and continued following the route of the telephone line toward the wreck. About 11:30 a.m., they found a manila line lying across the trail and followed it through the underbrush to the bluff overlooking the Valencia. The rescuers arrived just in time to witness a huge breaker demolish the last of the upper works. As they watched, horrified and powerless, about 40 persons, all wearing life preservers, were swept into the water. Some drowned or were beaten to death against the rocks, while others, clinging to pieces of wreckage, were carried out to sea, dying from exposure. The rescue party left the bluff and proceeded to the lineman’s shack on the Darling River where they found the Bunker Party. There, lineman Logan telephoned Bamfield with news of the final catastrophe.
The weather continued too thick for the Topeka to catch sight of land. Waiting for the weather to lift, the ship slowly patrolled the coast searching for the Valencia and, at times, was in only 10 fathoms of water. About 1:00 p.m., the Topeka sighted the second life raft with 18 men aboard. After being rescued, the survivors told Pharo the Valencia was doomed, but there was another life raft adrift with 10 men aboard. Still unable to see land, the Topeka searched for the raft until dark, then headed for shelter at Neah Bay.
On Thursday morning, the Topeka returned to the scene of the wreck, continuing to search for survivors. The shallow-draft steam whaler Orion was able to run in close to the reef, but saw no signs of life. Late that afternoon, the Topeka decided that further efforts would be fruitless and returned to Neah Bay. On Friday, January 26, 1906, the Topeka, having collected McCarthy and his crew from Cape Beale, left for Seattle with 24 survivors.
The Last Survivors
Meanwhile, the first life raft, with 10 men aboard, drifted 18 miles northwest past Cape Beale into Barkley Sound, landing on Turtle Island late Wednesday night. Only four of the survivors were still alive: two had fallen overboard and four had died from exposure. After walking around the island all day Thursday, they were discovered by a party of Indians who gave them food and water. The survivors were taken to Toquart, a small village near Ucluelet, by the inland steamer Shamrock, then to Victoria, B.C., on Saturday January 27, 1906, by the Salvor.
On Friday, a six-man relief party from Bamfield finally reached the Darling River, a distance of 15 miles, with food and clothing for the Bunker Party and rescue party from Carmanah. Some of the survivors were without boots, their feet cut and bruised. Early Saturday morning, the survivors, assisted by the rescuers, left the lineman’s shack for an agonizing 12-hour hike back to civilization. After arriving in Bamfield, the Bunker Party was taken onboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter Grant. That evening, the Grant picked up the four Turtle Island survivors in Victoria, B.C., and sailed to Seattle.
There were two official investigations into the causes of the Valencia disaster. The first investigation, commencing on Saturday, January 27, 1906, was conducted by Captains Bion B. Whitney and Robert A. Turner, U. S. Marine Inspection Service. Since the vessel had been totally destroyed, the inspectors relied on testimony from the 37 survivors to reconstruct the accident. That investigation concluded on February 13 with their final report to the Department of Commerce and Labor dated March 17, 1906.
On February 7, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) ordered Lawrence O. Murray, Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Labor, to establish a Federal Commission of Investigation into the wreck of the Valencia, focusing not only on the causes, but also on prevention and navigational safety along the coast and inland waters of Washington. President Roosevelt appointed Murray as the chairman, and Herbert Knox Smith, Deputy Commissioner of Corporations and Captain William T. Burwell, U. S. Navy, Commandant of the Puget Sound Navy Yard, as members.
The Federal Commission commenced the investigation in Seattle on February 14 and concluded on March 1, 1906. They examined 60 witnesses, collecting 1,860 pages of testimony and more than 30 exhibits. The lighthouse tender SS Columbine took the Commissioners to Neah Bay, around Cape Flattery looking for locations to build life-saving stations, and finally to the scene of the wreck on Vancouver Island. Their report to the president, including conclusions and recommendations, was published on April 14, 1906.
Foul Weather and Navigational Errors
Both investigations concluded that navigational errors by Captain Johnson, exacerbated by foul weather, caused the Valencia to run ashore on Vancouver Island. Captain Johnson should have headed out to open sea until the weather lifted and the ship’s position could be absolutely determined. There had been no lifeboat drills during the voyage, resulting in mass confusion and the loss of many lives. With the exception of one boat davit breaking away and possibly weak bulkheads inside the Valencia, none of the loss of life was due to any defect in the ship. The rescue vessels had done everything reasonable to assist the Valencia but, through a series of unfortunate circumstances and missed opportunities, had failed. The Federal Commission commented, however, “...there was certainly no display of the heroic daring that has often marked other such emergencies in our merchant marine.”
According to the Federal Commission of Investigation, the Valencia left San Francisco with nine officers and 56 crew. There were at least 108 passengers on board; 80 men, 17 women and 11 children, not identified on the passenger list. The official death toll for the disaster was 136 persons; seven officers, 33 crewmen and 96 passengers. There were 37 survivors; two officers, 23 crewmen, and 12 passengers. All of the women and children perished. An exhaustive search of the area by ship and of the coastline and islands by search parties produced the bodies of only 33 victims; the rest were never found. No one alive witnessed the fate of Captain Johnson, but all the survivors praised him, stating that everything humanly possible had been done to save all under his command.
Phantom Ships and Ghosts at Sea
In 1910, The Seattle Times and other newspapers reported that mariners claimed to have seen a phantom ship resembling the Valencia on the rocks in the vicinity of the Pachena Point. Rumor also held that Indian fishermen had sighted a lifeboat manned by skeletons.
In 1933, Valencia’s lifeboat No. 5 was found drifting in Barkley Sound, still in good condition despite 27 years of exposure to the elements. Part of the lifeboat, bearing the name Valencia, is on display at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia in Victoria, B.C.
The treacherous, stormy southwest coast of Vancouver Island has a history of shipwrecks dating back to 1786. Known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” almost 70 ships have wrecked there. Lighthouses were established at Cape Beale in 1874 and at Carmanah Point in 1891, linked by a telegraph line. The Valencia disaster finally shocked the Canadian Government into building another lighthouse at Pachena Point in 1907.
As protection against further catastrophes, the overgrown and poorly maintained telegraph route was transformed into a lifesaving trail for shipwrecked mariners, complete with wooden shelters built at suitable intervals. The 47-mile West Coast Trail, as it is known today, has been improved and preserved for recreation and historical purposes by Parks Canada as part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. The 100-foot cliffs above the scene of the disaster have been named the Valencia Bluffs. From there, the tangled wreckage of the Valencia, now a protected artifact, can be seen, sitting on rocks in four fathoms of water, rusting away.