Wreck of the SS Valencia

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.

One of the most disturbing chapters in Northwest maritime lore was the sinking of the Valencia, a small, aging and underpowered ocean passenger steamer that left San Francisco in 1906, bound for Seattle and Victoria, B.C. A thick fog and rough seas caused the ship to run aground along the British Columbia coast. The death toll was uncertain and estimates ranged from 154 people to as many as 181. The steamship company was criticized for hiring an inexperienced captain; the captains of nearby ships - including the Queen - were taken to task for not aiding the Valencia; and a surviving lifeboat of men were accused of saving themselves and turning their backs on women and children passengers.

Once word of the disaster reached Victoria, three ships were dispatched to rescue the survivors. The largest was the passenger liner SS Queen; accompanying her were the salvage steamer Salvor and the tug Czar. Another steamship, the SS City of Topeka, was later sent from Seattle with a doctor, nurses, medical supplies, members of the press, and a group of experienced seamen. On the morning of January 24, the Queen arrived at the site of the wreck, but was unable to approach due to the severity of the weather and lack of depth charts. Seeing that it would not be possible to approach the wreck from the sea, the Salvor and Czar set off to Bamfield to arrange for an overland rescue party.

Upon seeing the Queen, the Valencia's crew launched the ship's two remaining life rafts, but the majority of the passengers decided to remain on the ship, presumably believing that a rescue party would soon arrive. Approximately one hour later, the City of Topeka arrived and, like the Queen, was unable to approach the wreck. The Topeka cruised the waters off the coast for several hours searching for survivors, and eventually came upon one of the life rafts carrying 18 men. No other survivors were found, and at dark the captain of the Topeka called off the search. The second life raft eventually drifted ashore on an island in Barkley Sound, where the four survivors were found by the island's First Nations and taken to a village near Ucluelet.

When the overland party arrived at the cliffs above the site of the wreck, they found dozens of passengers clinging to the rigging and the few unsubmerged parts of the Valencia's hull. Without any remaining lifelines, however, they could do nothing to help the survivors, and within hours a large wave washed the wreckage off the rocks and into the ocean. Every remaining passenger drowned.