The SS Valencia is well known for two hair-raising reasons – the grueling 40 hours it took to sink it and the ghost stories that have emerged around it in the century since.
Sailing from San Francisco, Calif. to Victoria in January 1906, the ship hit some bad weather and veered off course. Lost in the fog, the captain and crew overshot Victoria and soon found themselves in a notoriously treacherous section of the coastline – the graveyard of the Pacific.
“She crashed on the rocks and amazingly was only 100 metres away from land,” said Brittany Vis, associate director of the Maritime Museum of B.C. But, despite being so close to safety, very few would survive. It is this torturous tale the museum tells in its latest exhibit SS Valencia: “A Theatre of Horrors.”
|“A Theatre of Horrors” is on display at the Maritime Museum of B.C. until September 2. (Courtesy of Brittany Vis/Maritime Museum of B.C.)|
That day, giant waves crashed over the Valencia and those on board were immediately thrown into a panic. Lifeboats were lowered half-full and many capsized before they even hit the ocean, leaving those who were in them to flounder in the icy water off the west coast of Vancouver Island.
For 40 hours chaos ensued as crew and passengers attempted to escape and rescuers tried to reach them. Finally, the Valencia surrendered to its fate and sunk below the surface. Of the nearly 200 people on board, only 37 survived.
“Those who survived somehow miraculously managed to swim and grab a hold of land and not get bashed into the rocks,” Vis said. But when they finally reached the shore, the exhausted survivors were met with nothing but bush. A few others managed to board lifeboats before the ship went down and were picked up by rescue vessels nearby.
It is because of this the Canadian government commissioned the Dominion Life-Saving Trail – known as the West Coast Trail today – and the Pachena Point Lighthouse. It hoped a trail would help rescuers reach stranded vessels and a lighthouse would warn approaching ships of the jagged coastline.
The story of the Valencia shipwreck didn’t end there though. As early as 1910, there are records of mariners seeing a ghost ship that would follow them up the coastline until it reached the site of the shipwreck where it would jump up and crash down under the waves, disappearing.
These stories and those of the survivors are documented in the Maritime Museum’s exhibit, alongside the objects that have been salvaged from the wreck – a starboard light, one of the lifeboat’s nameplates and a couple of life preservers.
Vis suggests people carve out 30 to 60 minutes to view it and reminds visitors they need to book an appointment. Hours can be found at mmbc.bc.ca.
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