FELIKS BANEL

From the KIRO Newsradio archives: The wreck of the Valencia 

Jan 26, 2022, 12:30 PM

Editor’s note: This story was originally published Jan. 27, 2016

“HAVE YOU SEEN THE PHANTOM SHIP?”

That’s what the front page of a local newspaper magazine said on Jan. 30, 1910. The headline was accompanied by a line drawing of two men in a small, open boat. In the distance, a large steamship floats on the calm waters. Bearing down on the men is a ghostly, vaporous hull of an unidentified vessel. 

The story related the tale that in the previous year, several mariners had reported seeing a “phantom ship” in the waters off the west coast of Vancouver Island near the lighthouse at Pachena Point, and they also reportedly could “vaguely see human forms clinging to her masts and rigging.” 

To many, the “phantom” looked a lot like a ship called the Valencia, what some would come to think of decades later as the “Titanic of the West Coast.” And those “human forms” looked a lot like the countless women and children who had clung to the masts and rigging in the Valenica’s infamous final moments. 

The Valencia was a 252’ long passenger steamer that was owned by the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, an enterprise that moved people and freight between the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest starting in the late 1800s. The ship had been on its way from San Francisco to Victoria and Seattle when it ran aground late southeast of Bamfield, B.C. on the stormy night of Monday, Jan. 22, 1906. 

After a horrific day and a half of failed rescues and heavy weather, the Valencia broke apart and sank right off shore around midday on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 1906. Only 37 men survived. At least 117 people died, including all the women and children who were aboard. Victims were eventually recovered from the sea and from the shore, and many were never identified. 

With such a great loss of life, it’s not unusual that a lot of spooky stories about the Valencia circulated in the days, months and even decades after it was lost. One story that emerged within a month or so of the wreck was of a lifeboat from the ship that was supposedly spotted in a narrow cave, nearly inaccessible in the surf at the base of the bluffs. As the story went, the lifeboat was upright and floating in the water-filled cave, and it was full of skeletons. No evidence of this story’s veracity has ever been uncovered. 

But one eerie story actually did happen. In 1933, some 27 years after the wreck, a lifeboat from the Valencia actually did turn up, floating inexplicably in nearby Barkley Sound.  

Clay Evans says that it’s not surprising that spooky legends arose around the Valencia.

“The setting for one thing,” is part of it, Evans said. “Even though [the site of the wreck is] not that far from Seattle and not that far from Victoria as the crow flies, it’s still a very remote, rugged, mysterious chunk of coast line.”

Evans knows his Valencia history. He’s based in Victoria, B.C., where he’s the Superintendent of Search and Rescue for the Canadian Coast Guard, and where he recently served as interim CEO of the Maritime Museum of B.C. He also spent nearly 20 years of his career with the Coast Guard stationed in Bamfield, B.C., near where the Valencia was lost. 

The Valencia got into trouble because of a navigation mistake combined with bad weather. Navigation, without electronics like radios or radar, was more of a guessing game in those years. Captain Oscar Johnson, who was in charge on of the Valencia on the fateful voyage, guessed wrong. He took the Valencia about 30 miles too far north, and missed the right turn into the Juan de Fuca Strait. 

“He hit a rock,” said historian and author David Grover. “And that rock was only about a quarter mile off the coast of Vancouver Island. [Captain Johnson] had overshot the entrance to the Strait that far.” 

In 2002, Grover wrote a book for Oregon State University Press about Pacific Northwest maritime disasters called “The Unforgiving Coast.” He says there were several factors that doomed the Valencia, including darkness and a major storm, as well as navigation mistakes made by Captain Johnson. Grover also says the Valencia was not cut out for service in rough seas; the ship was temporarily replacing another Pacific Coast Steamship Company vessel that had broken down. 

“She was not a strong ship,” Grover said. “She really had no business filling in for a mainline, high-powered passenger ship, so she got into an awful jam very quickly.” 

After the ship hit the rocks, they backed off to inspect the damage. It was clear immediately that the ship was taking on too much water for the pumps to keep up. So they turned around, pointed the bow out to sea, and then backed in toward shore to run the stern aground so that the ship couldn’t sink. 

But the storm was intense, and the Valencia, an old single-hulled iron vessel, took an enormous pounding. A man named Frank Lehn, who was a freight clerk aboard the Valencia, later described what happened. 

“The ship began to break up almost at once, and the women and children were lashed to the rigging, above the reach of the sea,” Lehn told investigators. “It was a pitiful sight to see frail women, wearing only night dresses, with bare feet, on the freezing ratlines, trying to shield children in their arms from the icy wind and rain.” 

Grover says the Valencia carried no radio, so there was no way to notify anyone about the disaster. Flares fired by the crew into the storm were apparently seen by no one. 

“The ship went 24 hours before anyone on the American side knew anything about it, or made any effort to get out there,” Grover said. “So it was just a disastrous situation, and it must have been pretty obvious early on that this was not going to have a favorable ending.” 

They tried to launch lifeboats in the heavy swells, but most ended up flipped over, with their occupants sucked into the undertow and drowned.  Huge waves continually crashed over the ship, washing away many of the passengers who were clinging to the deck. 

“Screams of women and children mingled in an awful chorus with the shrieking of the wind, the dash of the rain, and the roar of the breakers,” survivor Frank Lehn said. “As the passengers rushed on deck, they were carried away in bunches by the huge waves that seemed as high as the ship’s mastheads.” 

In the morning, the situation wasn’t much better. Getting off the ship was nearly impossible in the surf, and the few who did reach the shore were faced with steep stone bluffs. However, a few passengers and crew managed to get ashore, and, with heroic effort, were able to get word of the disaster to the lighthouse at Carmanah. 

“The geography, that was the big problem,” Clay Evans said. “That particular location is locally known as Valencia Bluffs. For considerable distance along the West Coast Trail, you have this granite, almost volcanic, rock ledge [sticking out into the ocean] up to 200 or 300 hundred yards from the bluffs. So there’s this horrific solid, flat ledge full of boulders and rocks,” where the Valencia grounded.

During the day Tuesday, when other vessels finally reached the scene, no one on those vessels was willing to risk attempting a rescue. 

“For any large vessels to get in, it was impossible without the risk of running aground themselves,” Evans said. “And of course, when the seas came up [with] oceanic swell and the tide went down, it was all breakers all along the ledge. So it was impossible for people to get small boats in, and nearly impossible,” for the Valencia to launch lifeboats.

“On top of that,” Evans said, “there was no real beach ahead of her. It was essentially straight bluffs, so it was probably the worst imaginable place to unfortunately run aground.” 

Many of those who died suffered from exposure as darkness settled over the ship on Tuesday night. As the ship began to break apart on midday Wednesday, the remaining survivors climbed higher into the rigging, but then ultimately perished.  

It was reported later that at some point as the ship neared its end, those still alive sang the old hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee.” There are at least a few historians who believe that the legend of the band aboard the Titanic playing “Nearer, My God, To Thee” while that ship was sinking in 1912 is just that, a legend, and that this the story may actually have its origins in the singing aboard the Valencia. 

Regardless of the musical accompaniment, the location where the Valencia broke apart that day is still a pretty unforgiving place, and it’s still pretty creepy, too. Jacques Marc is explorations director for the Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C. He’s dived on the Valencia wreck many times over the past few decades. 

Marc says the wreck is pretty much unrecognizable nowadays. 

“She’s sort of reached a position of stability, as I’d describe it,” Marc said. “In other words, she’s been disturbed [by salvagers] in the early days, ripped apart, broken apart. Now she’s kind of flattened. The material has found places in the rock where it’s sort of lodged, and it doesn’t move.”

In spite of the deterioration of the ship, “it’s still sort of a cool site to dive on.”

“The stern is sort of in the rocks close to shore and the bow is pointing out to sea,” he said. “What’s a little bit eerie [is that] the bow looks like somebody used a big cleaver and chopped it off the rest of the vessel, and [the bow is] lying upside down on the white sand bottom, with two anchors, one on either side of it.”

That eerie feeling is something that hasn’t left for Jacques Marc, no matter how many times he’s dived on the Valencia.

“In the back of your mind, if you’ve done the research, you’ve read about the horror of the wreck and you’ve read the fact that even if [the passengers] got ashore, they were faced with 100 foot cliffs. There just wasn’t a lot going for the poor people on the vessel,” he said. “So it’s more the horror of the event, the story, and, you know, the fact you’re diving this very site.”

The loss of the Valencia was a tragedy, but it was not without a silver lining. Clay Evans says that major infrastructure for the Canadian and the American Coast Guard was created on both sides of the Strait of Juan de Fuca as a direct result of the disaster. 

“If there’s any enduring positive legacy the tragedy did lead to the establishment of a life saving station at Waadah Island, which became Neah Bay, which still exists today,” Evans said. “And of course the life-saving station at Bamfield, and other ones on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, too.”

The people of Bamfield feel a special connection to the Valencia, so much so that they organized a weekend of activities to mark the centennial in January 2006. A former Bamfield resident named Anne Weiler-Brown was chair of the committee that put together the centennial. Weiler-Brown and other Bamfield volunteers tracked down descendants of survivors, victims and rescuers, and offered several public programs for the event. 

“I’m a big believer that if you don’t know your history, you don’t know where your future lies because everything is built on what happened in the past,” Weiler-Brown said. “And this, to me, is extraordinarily important, because we have an amazing Coast Guard which would not have happened maybe at the speed that it did, but it did because of the experience of so many people perishing.” 

“Because of the Valencia being mostly Americans who perished, both the United States and Canada had a big need to have a more modern Coast Guard,” Weiler-Brown said. “They pooled their resources to create the first steam engine-run Coast Guard vessel which first came to Bamfield, and then of course continued to grow. It was really because of the Valencia disaster.” 

Weiler-Brown says the centennial event was emotional at times, in particular during a well-attended memorial service.

“A lot of people found that to be really moving because we did have people who were descendants of survivors or of those that perished,” she said. “That was very moving.” 

While the “ghost ship” and skeleton cave rumors are apparently just that, the story about the old empty lifeboat turning up in 1933 is actually true. Some of the key details are a little sketchy. 

In an email, Jillan Valpy, collections manager for the Maritime Museum of British Columbia shared what the museum has in its files on the name plate. 

Valpy writes: “The number and name plate from the S.S. Valencia were donated by Mrs. Doris G. MacFarlane, on October 19, 1955, to the Maritime Museum of BC. Her late husband, Captain G.A. MacFarlane, discovered the lifeboat in the Barkley Sound area in 1933, and cut both the name plate and number plate from it. The lifeboat had apparently drifted there from the wreck of the S.S. Valencia between Carmanah and Pachena Point. The name plate was shown at the Ship Lovers’ Association’s second exhibition which was held in Crystal Gardens, Victoria in 1934.” 

Clay Evans says that the discovery in 1933 by Captain MacFarlane of the lifeboat makes the “skeleton cave” rumor a little harder to dismiss. 

“I think it’s quite possible, since the one vessel did show up 26 years later. And maybe somebody, for whatever reason was up a surge channel [and saw a lifeboat in 1906] and it did have skeletons in it at the time,” Evans said. “I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of the impossible that somebody could have seen it earlier.” 

The Valencia was ultimately headed for Seattle when it wrecked, and Seattle has two direct connections to the Valencia disaster. One was the federal inquiry held here in February 1906 that found Captain Johnson, who perished in the wreck, responsible for the loss. The final report also found that navigation aids around the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca were woefully inadequate, saying the “dangers of this entrance are out of all proportion to the present light-house and fog-signal equipment.” 

The other Seattle connection is still visible today at Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill and, according to a cemetery employee, is visited often. The remains of 13 unidentified victims were buried at Mount Pleasant in September 1906, and a large memorial marker was dedicated there. 

At the memorial service held in Seattle in September 1906 for the 13 victims, well-known Seattle poet and lyricist Mrs. Agnes Lockhart Hughes read a poem that she’d composed for the occasion called “The Wreck Of The Valencia.” The poem included vivid imagery of lifeboats crushed like eggshells, and referred twice to the doomed passengers singing “Nearer, My God, To Thee.” 

For Valencia centennial organizer Weiler-Brown, it’s important that the wreck off Vancouver Island be remembered more than generally it is nowadays, especially compared to that more famous ocean liner that sank in 1912 — the one with the blockbuster film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, with the sweeping theme song by Celine Dion. 

“The Valencia is little-known in comparison to the Titanic, but it created a much stronger impact, long-term,” said Weiler-Brown, pointing to the improvements in safety and the increased presence of the Coast Guard on both sides of the border. 

Weiler-Brown was asked if it would help keep the story alive to have Celine Dion record a song about the Valencia. 

“That would be great,” Weiler-Brown said, laughing. “And make a movie.” 

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here. 

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From the KIRO Newsradio archives: The wreck of the Valencia