Many passersby at Vanier Park have noticed the inconspicuous 38-tonne column on the grass outside the Vancouver Maritime Museum, and many stop by to ask us what it is. Well, despite its most common use as a climbing wall for adventurous kids and adults, the column’s intended home had been an American mint built in the late 19th century. The column is one half of a pair mined from the sandstone quarry on Newcastle Island in Nanaimo. The columns were finished in 1872 and were meant to be used to support the entrance of the new San Francisco Mint. On February 12, 1872, the two columns were aboard the Zephyr and on their way to San Francisco.

The Zephyr was a 200-foot, three-masted barque and was well up to the challenge of carrying thousands of pounds of stone down the Pacific coast. In addition to the two 38-tonne columns, the ship was carrying five large stone slabs weighing nearly 2 tonnes each. The ship set off on its voyage in the cold, clear winter. By the time it had reached Active Pass on February 13, it was dark and a snowstorm had set in. The crew kept a sharp eye out, weaving the ship to avoid land and obstacles in their path. But the blinding snow made it nearly impossible to distinguish the land from the sea.

Tragedy struck when the Zephyr struck a rock and damaged the starboard bilge. The crew leapt into action and the pumps were put to work, but their efforts were in vain. The water level in the hold continued to rise. The crew began preparations to depart the ship at first light, but before they could abandon ship, at 5:00 a.m. it suddenly heeled over. All but four men managed to make it to the lifeboat before the ship sunk. Those unfortunate men were the captain, the cook and two crewmen. While the cook was fished from the water and one crewman, Philip Gough, was recovered on the beach, both Captain Hipson and crewmen J. Stewart were lost.

The two sandstone columns and stone slabs went down with the ship where they spent over a century on the sea floor.


photo of sandstone column in the grass

The wreck of the Zephyr was discovered off the rocky coast of Mayne Island in 1976, resting in 40 feet of water between Edith Point and David’s Cove. Divers recovered the capstan, chronometer and other pieces from the ship from beneath a century’s worth of undisturbed sand. But the biggest feat of recovery was raising the two sandstone columns.

After mapping and inventorying the wreck, the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (UASBC) retrieved the two columns and five stone slabs in 1987. Four of the stone slabs went to the waterfront park in Nanaimo, and one went to the Mayne Island Museum. As for the two stone columns, one was returned to  Newcastle Island, while its twin was given to the VMM to be displayed at Vanier Park. You can come check out the historic sandstone column for yourself, located right outside the VMM on the northern lawn in beautiful Vanier Park.

Check out our Instagram post Zephyr from last week!

I would like to acknowledge the research done by Lynn Salmon. Her work has made this blog post possible.

Salmon, Lynn (2012) The Wreck of the 2012.