The Sinking of the S.S. Valencia

Backgrounder

The sinking of S.S. Valencia off the west coast of Vancouver Island in January 1906 resulted in the deaths of 136 passengers, including 17 women and 11 children. This tragic accident led to a fundamental reformulation of the federal government’s policy of maritime safety and rescue in Pacific waters. The construction of new aids to navigation, such as the Pachena Point lighthouse, improvements in sea rescue, updated mapping, and upgraded land and sea communications, including the West Coast Trail, were all made in response to this tragedy. The accident also had diplomatic repercussions within a tense bilateral relationship between Canada and the United States, as Canada’s balanced response to the sinking of Valencia asserted this country’s sovereignty while answering American concerns about Canada’s maritime safety and rescue policy. 

Late in the evening of 22 January 1906, the U.S. passenger steamer S.S. Valencia missed the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca during stormy weather en route from San Francisco to Victoria, then on to Seattle. Near midnight, the ship struck Walla Walla Reef south of Pachena Point on Vancouver Island’s west coast. The hull of the 80-metre (252-foot) ship was breached and, in an attempt to save his vessel, Captain Oscar M. Johnson drove the ship onto the rocks, barely one hundred metres offshore. On board stood a crew of 65 and 108 passengers. 

The ship remained afloat for roughly 36 hours. After the accident became known to the outside world, ships filled with members of the press stood barely a kilometre away from the wreck. However, rescue proved to be illusory. No vessels could approach Valencia by sea, and approach from land was even more problematic due to the precipitous rock cliffs in this area. For the following day and a half, the grounded Valencia was relentlessly attacked by vicious winds and unrelenting waves. Attempts to launch lifeboats from the ship proved futile. The few who made it to shore were almost all killed, their bodies dashed against the rocky shore. In the end, only 37 passengers survived the disaster. 

In the weeks following the loss of S.S. Valencia, both the Canadian and American governments launched inquiries into the ship’s sinking. The Valencia disaster offered an opportunity for authorities at all levels on both sides of the border to proceed in a spirit of unaccustomed cooperation in the achievement of parallel goals. As well, it offered an opportunity for Canada to assert its national sovereignty. Canada’s determination to formulate its own maritime policy, with a serious consideration of American interests in the maritime safety of their ships in Canadian waters, offers an instructive insight into the complexities of Canadian-American diplomacy before the First World War. 

The West Coast Trail was perhaps the most enduring component in the Canadian government’s response to identified deficiencies in its approach to west-coast maritime protection. Declared a public highway in 1911, the trail – variously called the Life Saving Trail or the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Trail – survives as a world-class hiking path within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.


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