Thick and blinding, the fog rolled across the waves, foreshadowing a ghostly tale. A winter’s chill clouded the air, reminiscent of other fateful nights when ships answered the sirens call. There are those who have written and believe that supernatural forces were at work that fateful day; for the sun was shining bright when the SS Valencia pulled from port in San Francisco on Saturday morning, embarking for Seattle with her 108 passengers, nine officers, and fifty-six crew members.
A seasoned, twelve-year veteran of the company, having worked his way through the ranks from quartermaster, Captain Oscar M. Johnson maneuvered through the Graveyard of the Pacific. Aptly named for its mass of shipwrecks beneath the Pacific Ocean along the Pacific Coast. From the launch of the California Gold Rush through to the sinking of the SS Valencia, 500 ships were lost. The number is relatively small compared to the East Coast’s Graveyard of the Atlantic. That is until one remembers that the East side of the United States has had centuries longer to rack up its count that is believed to reach a thousand ships at most, several hundred at least. The exact total is not known as it is believed that many ships were lost without documentation.
On Sunday, the weather began to turn against the ship’s crew. They did their best to continue navigating the waters, following the compass and educated guesses as to their position. No one could take into account just how far the strong winds would push the ship off course, with the ship landing twenty miles north of where the captain believed they should be located. Near midnight on Monday, January 22, 1906, the ship passed the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, running aground on Vancouver Island. Trapped on Walla Walla Reef, in between the breakers and rocky cliffs, the ship was slowly ripped apart by the pounding waves.
Captain Oscar M. Johnson ordered six of the seven lifeboats lowered into the water. Six would have been enough to carry 131 of the people on board. Then panic ensued as the passengers tried to load themselves into the boats, within half an hour, all six were lifeboats became victims of the sea.
Three of the boats ran into problems immediately: one being overcrowded and two were upended while being lowered. The other three that managed to pull away, carrying around fifty people, and two capsized in the breakers. As for the third, no one knows what happened to it, though the fate likely matched that of the other boats. One crew member was rescued from the first three boats, and twelve men were able to escape the sinking boats. Fatefully, only nine made it to the shore. Two fled to a shallow cave and then to the cliffs where they fell to their deaths. One other reached a large rock near the shore, but was later swept away by the waves.
The ship began to break apart on Tuesday morning and at eight in the morning, Captain Johnson called for the last lifeboat to be launched. This one would take Boatswain Timothy J. McCarthy and five crewmen to shore, where they would fire a line to the ship to establish a rescue operation. They had three lines to make the attempt, one became tangled and another broke, the last was held in reserve.
Of the first nine survivors to reach the shore, led by Frank F. Bunker, followed a telephone line to reach help. The party had to travel threw forest and streams, finally reaching a lineman’s shack at 2:00 p.m. It took several tries to get the lines to work, and when they finally did, the call of distress rang to the Carmanah Light Station, then to Bamfield, and finally Victoria B.C. By this point, the ship had been wrecked for fifteen hours. Unfortunately, due to the heavy fog and storms that had unknowingly pushed the ship off course, the men who had reached the telegraph gave the wrong location. They believed that the ship had wrecked on the Washington Coast, when in fact, they had travelled all the way to Vancouver Island.
McCarthy’s group also hiked the trail, choosing the route to the Cape Beale Light Station, arriving around 3 p.m. The light keeper then telephoned Bamfield with the updated information. Later on the same afternoon, three men from Carmanah Point started on their own journey to aid in the rescue: government lineman David Logan, assistant station keeper Philip C. Daykin, and fur trapper Joseph D. Martin. With the thick, isolated wilderness of the location, their travels were as difficult as the rest. They reached the Klanawa River, only having to wait until daylight before being able to cross the swollen water safely.
The rescue attempts did not stop here, the ship’s owner, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company (PCSC), received word that the ship had run aground and immediately tried to send ships to the location. Once again, fate came into play and no ocean-going tugboats were available. Another passenger liner, the SS Queen, bound in the opposite direction leaving from Seattle for San Francisco, was in Victoria, B.C. to pick up passengers. Captain N.E. Cousins was ordered to immediate proceed to the wreck, leaving the passengers behind. He took with him four master mariners, and a Puget Sound pilot. They arrived off of Carmanah Point at 10:00 p.m. The steamship, SS City of Topeka, was also dispatched to the scene, this one taking medical supplies, a doctor, two nurses, seventeen extra seamen, and perhaps not surprisingly, an insurance claims adjuster. But the Topeka was unable to depart from port until 10:00 p.m. Tuesday night.
By Wednesday morning, two tugboats were able to aid in the rescue: the Czar and the Salvor. The Queen arrived in time to see the Valencia, before the murky weather closed in on the air between the two, cutting off the visual. Those still on the Valencia also saw the other ship, and believing that they were to be rescued shortly, and many refused to try and use the two life rafts on board. One raft did depart with ten men, but the women refused to take a risk in the other raft, unwilling to believe that the waters were calmer. The second raft was launched, with eighteen men on board; they remained tied to the sinking ship for fifteen minutes, while the crew continued to urge the women to board.
It was said that as the last raft pulled away, the women sang “Nearer My God to Thee.” Witnesses say that the remaining passengers could be seen huddled together on the hurricane deck and clinging to the rigging; until a final wave struck the ship, sweeping the people into the ocean. Some drown, others died on the rocky cliffs, and the rest were swept out into the deeper ocean never to be seen again. The ships tried again and again in the following hours and days to search for survivors. The first life raft that had set out with ten men on board, was found Wednesday night, eighteen miles northwest, with only four survivors. The others had either fallen overboard or died of exposure. When the time came to make the final count, only thirty-seven people were left; 136 had perished in the wreck, one of the most tragic maritime disasters in Pacific Northwest history.
There is a theory that persists in the paranormal world, wherein moments of horror can tear at the fabric of time, causing a persistent, residual loop that replays over and over again. Generally this is used to explain why visitors to battlefields like Gettysburg see whole units of soldiers charging across a field in the heat of battle; a scene that is said to take place at Iverson’s Pits. The battle was death to Iverson’s Brigade, whole lines of men fell together. Such a theory may go beyond the battlefield, to a moment of horror at sea where rescuers could only watch as people died and spend the rest of their lives remembering those fateful hours that they could not reach them.
The ghost stories surrounding the wreck began earlier, the first being officially recorded in The Seattle Times in 1910. A phantom ship, that coincidentally resembled the Valencia, was spotted on the rocks near Pachena Point by a group of mariners. Though it is said that a phantom ship could be seen at night, in the year following the wreck, headed directly on the same course as the Valencia on that night.
A local fisherman had also sighted one of the lifeboats drifting near the wreck site. They said that it was crewed by skeletons. The missing lifeboat was found in Barkley Sound in 1933, still in surprisingly good condition despite the nearly three decades of exposure to the elements of the Pacific Northwest. Part of the lifeboat can be seen on display at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia in Victoria, B.C.
Many rumors persist about the shipwreck, some say that it was doomed from the start. They include the undocumented tale that the ship’s cook predicted that tragedy would befall them. Controversy also surrounds the ships sinking and the events after, with many questioning what more could have been done to save those who died. Is the thought that they could have been saved, with help and hope so near, the reason that the ship is said to continuously reappear on the rocky cliffs throughout the century following the wreck? Others question the oddly Bermuda Triangle like feel to the last accounted for lifeboat, that was found so many years after the wreck in an unlikely condition.
The memorial service was held the following September. During which, Mrs. Agnes Lockhard Hughes, read a poem she had written for their memorial; it concluded with:
“The grave may hold the body’s shell
but heaven claims the soul.
And though we sink in life’s dark sea
in God we find our goal.”
Hagerty, Andy. “SS Valencia.” NightWatch Paranormal. Accessed 3/7/16. https://www.nightwatchparanormal.com/ss-valencia.html
McClary, Daryl C. “Valencia, SS, the Wreck of (1906).” HistoryLink.org Essay 7382. Accessed 3/7/16. https://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=7382
“The Sinking of the Valencia: The Tragedy and Beyond.” Bamfield Community School Association. Accessed 3/7/16. https://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_memories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line&lg=English&fl=0&ex=00000658&sl=5356&pos=1
“Valencia Disaster Nearer My God To Thee.” Encyclopedia Titanica. Discussion Forum. Accessed 3/8/16. https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/forums/other-ships-shipwrecks/25239-valencia-disaster-nearer-my-god-thee.html