The West Coast Trail attracts hikers from all over the world. Did you know the trail’s origins are part of maritime history? The waters off the trail route are known as the Graveyard of the Pacific because so many ships have been wrecked along the coast. The trail was built because of one tragic incident.
It started just before midnight on January 21, 1906, when the iron hull of SS Valencia collided with an uncharted reef near Pachena Point, off the coast of Vancouver Island. Of 136 passengers and crew, only 37 men survived. All the women and children died.
Captain Oscar Johnson was unable to use celestial navigation due to the stormy weather and poor visibility, so he used a combination of dead reckoning, compass courses and distance sailed to identify the ship’s position. But the weather was too ferocious. Valencia missed the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca by more than 20 miles. After the ship struck the reef, the middle cargo hold began to fill with water. Captain Johnson ordered the ship to be beached stern side into the shoreline so it wouldn’t sink in deep water. But the ship’s state, high tides and strong winds meant the closest they could get was 55 yards to the shoreline.
Nine men reached the shore. They landed about 500 yards northwest of the Valencia. After climbing a 100-foot rock cliff, they followed a telegraph trail through thick forest to a lineman’s shack at the Darling River. More than fifteen hours after the initial collision, Frank Bunker, one of the nine men, informed Carmanah Light Station about the Valencia.
The ship’s boatswain and crew of volunteers got into the last lifeboat after they realized the party who’d made it to shore weren’t coming back. They landed eight miles northwest of Valencia. When they found a sign “Three miles to Cape Beal” the group realized they were not wrecked off the Washington Coast but wrecked off Vancouver Island. They hiked for 2.5 hours to the Cape Beal Light House for help.
Meanwhile, Captain Johnson and roughly 100 survivors had been forced onto the hurricane deck. Captain Johnson refused a life vest was last seen clinging to the rigging, along with other unnamed passengers. They all perished.
Joe Cigalos was a fireman and crew member of SS Valencia. He risked his life numerous times to try and save the lives of those also trapped at sea.
After realizing the landing parties were not coming back, he tied a line to his waist and attempted to swim to shore. He was pulled back to the ship after 30 minutes of swimming desperately in the cold waters.
Ciaglos was one of 18 men in lifeboat were picked up by rescue vessel SS City of Topeka on January 25. Though two other rescue ships had shown up, both left not realizing there were still people on the sinking ship.
Of the more than 70 shipwrecks in the Graveyard of the Pacific, the sinking of SS Valencia is still considered the worst maritime disaster in the area. The horrific experience of the Valencia’s passenger and crew forced the Canadian Government to build the Dominion Lifesaving Trail and the Pachena Point Lighthouse. After three years, the 75-kilometre trail from Pachena Bay to Port Renfrew was complete. Every eight kilometers along the trail, the Canadian Government built emergency shelters with a telegraph and instructions in multiple languages. Each shelter was stocked with provisions and directions for navigating the trail.
Since the mid 1970s, the route has been known as the West Coast Trail. It’s one of B.C.’s most iconic wild places to visit, enjoyed by thousands of recreational hikers every year. Some of those hikers might catch a glimpse of pieces of the ship, which are still visible at low tide even though the ship sunk 115 years ago.
The images in this post are from the VMM collections. Top: SS Valencia at dock item no. LM2009.1000.1324; Bottom: Joe Ciaglos, 1906 item no. LM2006.1000.1336