Valencia Disaster Nearer My God To Thee


Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
Today's mail brought a piece of memorabilia- the only one I have ever found- commemorating what was perhaps the most grim liner disaster in West Coast history, and the disaster where the victims DID sing Nearer My God To Thee towards the end:
92908.jpg

The grounding and destruction of the Valencia on the South shore of Vancouver Island in January 1906.
(The programme cover reads Memorial Services of The Unknown Dead Of the Valencia Disaster. Conducted under the auspices of the Building Trades Assembly of Seattle.
Grand Opera House
Sunday, September 23, 1906.
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
The Valencia was a single screw coastal liner, 253'X 34' 1600 tons. Built in 1882, in Philadelphia, she was intended to be practical and comfortable rather than luxurious, and consistent and efficient rather than a record breaker. Her East Coast life was spent in the service of the Red Star Line, and her post-Spanish American War service life was spent on the West Coast run under the flag of the Pacific Coast Steamship Line. It was claimed after the disaster that Valencia was a run down second class vessel in dangerously deteriorated condition - however, the beating she endured during her final days and the amount of time her hull withstood the pounding of the sea and the grinding of the rocks upon which she was stranded leaves that assessment open to debate.
92911.jpg

I have a number of excellent photos of Valencia, but they are all in copyrighted texts. This photo of the Alameda from my collection (note- she is also run aground in this print) shows another Pacific Coast vessel with bears a strong resemblance to her.

The Valencia sailed from San Francisco for Seattle on January 20, 1906. She was under the command of Captain Oscar Johnson and carried 105 passengers and 65 crew. Two nights later in detriorating weather, due to a navigational error of the part of Captain Johnson ( he did not take the current into account when calculating the distance travelled) the Valencia overshot the entrance to the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and found herself in among the rocks off the grim SOuth Side of Vancouver Island. Captain Johnson's final recorded words before disaster was upon them; "My God! Where are we?"
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
She came to rest, stern in towards shore, in perhaps the worst place imaginable for a ship to be grounded. The water, aft and shoreward, was only ten feet deep- the water at the bow 25. Huge waves beat against the liner, and turned the 45 feet of rocks and water between her and the shore into an unsurvivable cauldron. The waves broke at the base of a cliff of 75'-100'+ feet, and there was almost no beach to speak of.

About a third of those aboard the Valencia died within the first hour. Captain Johnson ordered the lifeboats swung out, but against his command they were also filled and lowered. None of the boats survived the brief journey to shore- they were all capsized, and all but twelve of the 70 or so occupants drowned or were dashed to death against the rocks. The remaining boats were hauled back inboard, and the long wait began.

During the night the hull held together, but the Valencia settled somewhat deeper into the water and the 100 or so people remaining on board had to take to the rigging as waves began to wash over the decks and into the deck houses. This pattern continued through the days to come- as the tide rose or the waves increased in height, those who could had to climb to safety. As the tide fell or the storm abated somewhat they came down again, to take whatever shelter they could in the aft deckhouse. By all accounts discipline, after the lifeboat fiasco, was excellent with what food remained edible being distributed by the crew and no panic evident among the passengers.
92914.jpg

This postcard view shows the 22 passengers and crew of the coastal vessel Czarina who, like those aboard the Valencia, were forced to take to the rigging awaiting a rescue which never came after grounding in inescapably rough shoal water. Imagine, if you will, this scene being played out with about 100 people trapped in rougher water and at the base of an unclimbable cliff.
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
When the dawn broke, those trapped on the liner could see, 45 feet away from them, the twelve survivors from the lost lifeboats huddled among the rocks at the cliff base. Nine of them were able to reach one another,and the trapped saw them begin to pick their way as best they could along the base of the cliff. The remaining three, who came ashore at a point from which there could be no escape, were lost in full view of all those on board - two attempted to scale the cliff face and fell, while the third pathetic (and nude) soul was beaten to death against the rocks as the tide rose.

It was assumed, perhaps naievely, that at least SOME of the nine survivors would return to the cliff top once they found a means of scaling the face and so a line was fired to the cliff top from the ship's Lyle gun. It was hoped that when the survivors soon arrived above the wreck site they could make it fast and the evacuation via buoy could begin. The nine DID make it to the top of the cliff, some distance down the beach, but intead of returning to the wreck site kept walking in the opposite direction, toward where they hoped civilization lay. The line hung limp and unusable between the ship and the cliff top for well over a day before it frayed through, broke and fell into the ocean.

When it became apparent that the survivors on shore were not coming back, one of the remaining lifeboats was lowered with a small group of crew aboard. Somehow, they managed to successfully manouver it through the breakers and into the relatively calm waters beyond. And so, when they reached shore, and when the nine from the cliff top reached shelter (in separate locations) word reached the outside world of the desperate situation in which the Valencia survivors were trapped.
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
What followed was perhaps the most disgraceful event in West Coast Maritime History. Two rescue vessels specifically dispatched to go to the aid of the Valencia, the salvage tug Czar and the liner Queen City arrived to seaward. For those entering their third day of terror, it must have seemed like a miracle. The Queen City remained a safe distance from the wreck, while the Czar sailed in close. But, no aid was forthcoming. The Queen City sounded her whistle twice and departed, as did the Czar. The Queen City's captain would later allege that he (mistakenly) believed he was meant only to stand by until his company's vessel City of Topeka arrived at the scene. The Czar's captain, whose ship had been considerably closer to the wreck than the Queen City, alleged that he did not see the 100 people who were clearly visible from the Queen City waving and calling to him, and departed because he assumed that all aboard Valencia were dead.
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
92917.jpg


The departure of the two rescue ships must have spelled out, in as horrible a manner as possible to the trapped ones, that they were doomed. Two of the ships emergency rafts were put over the side, but the survival prospects seemed so bleak that none of the women offered places on the rafts would go. Even at that late stage order prevailed- and it was then that Nearer My God To Thee was sung by those remaining on board. One raft was swwept seaward where it was recovered by the liner City of Topeka which, unknown to those trapped aboard Valencia, was just beyond the horizon. The other raft was first swept to sea and then driven ashore at Turret Island. Most of those aboard died before land was made.

Conditions aboard the ship were worsening. Several days had elapsed and the hull was finally beginning to break up. The decks were submerged and then deckhouses beginning to collapse and so, for the final time, the Valencia's company took to the rigging.

And just when it looked bleakest, a rescue party appeared atop the cliff......
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
.....and did nothing. No reason was ever given for this final inaction, but the men, who had rope with them, made absolutely no effort to get it down to the ship. Instead they watched and waited for the end. When it came, the Valencia apparently heeled seaward as she collapsed. The men atop the cliff watched as the lifebelt wearing mass of survivors was thrown into the water. They were swept out to sea (beyond the breakers) by a strong surge, where they were visible for some time afterwards, in a cluster about a half mile out. All were lost.
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
The revulsion inspired by this disaster was swift and widespread. One of the more pungent quotes was given by passenger Charles Allison, who escaped on the raft picked up by the City of Topeka, after days spent starving and freezing on the Valencia. It was directed at survivor Frank Bunker, who was one of the nine to survive the lifeboat debacle (his wife and two children died in the surf after their boat upset) and a member of the party which walked to safety without returning to the wreck site:

"Why did you run away? Why did you not come back to help us? All we wanted was a single man on top of that cliff to catch a line. We had plenty of lines and means of getting them to shore- or at least a chance to- but no one to catch them. We prayed for teh sight of a man up there! Just one man to catch the end of the rope and make it fast to a tree! We wre so close, and the rock was so lonesome! I know I feel it keenly now, and the scene is still very fresh in my mind, but perhaps Mr Bunker is emotional too. He has reason to be, and I sympathise with him deeply in his afflcition. But he is able to ask questions and so am I......perhaps he can answer mine. Why should they all have run away? It wasn't far from where they were to the cliff above us. They could have got up some way, weak as they were. We didn't have smallpox- we were simply drowning and all we wanted was a rope."

Revulsion was fostered by the revelations at the hearings as well:

(One of those who watched the final breakup from
the cliff top describes the scene)

Q: The people sank immediately when they went into the water?
A: No, they all had something to hang on to.
Q: Did they go seaward, too, on this wreckage?
A: A number were drowned right there.
Q: How many would you say went out on wreckage?
A: I couldn't say.
Q: How far out could you see them on wreckage?
A: There was one piece ten feet square with four people on it about a quarter of a mile outside the breakers.
Q: And then it went westward?
A: Yes.
Q: Did you see it capsize?
A: No.
Q: Did you see any other wreckage with people on it go out to sea?
A: Yes.
Q: About how many could you see?
A: I couldn't tell- I made no attempt to count them.
Q: When you last saw them, they were still floating?
A: Yyes.
Q: Seaward?
A: Yes.
Q: They were all scatttered around there in the water?
A; Yes.
Q: Going to seaward and to the westward?
A: Yes.
Q: Did the life preservers buoy them up when they had no wreckage?
A: Seemed to as far as I could tell.....there were one or two men bidding these people goodbye as they went out to sea.
Q: How do you know that?
A: They were waving their hands.
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
NEARER MY GOD TO THEE: The memorial service, the following September, was principally religious in anture, but a memorial poem by Mrs. Agnes Lockhard Hughes was read (by Mrs. Hughes herself) and showed how closely N.M.G.T.T. was linked in the public mind to the Valencia disaster:

"The Wreck Of The Valencia"

Wild was the night,and shrieking winds
wailed through the splashing rain.
While maddened bilows foamed and roared
to drown the cries of pain.

A crash,a cry- a frenzied rush
and not a star to light
that awful tragedy that fate
enacted in one night.

Like egg-shells were the lifeboats crushed
and Oh! the anguised cry
that rose from woman, man and child
and pierced night's inky sky.

These starving, shivering human beings
wer growing mad with fear,
when Lo! above the howling din
a sweet voice rent the air.

The words she sang, by angels will
fore'er recorded be,
they stilled dread fear and led the band
"Nearer My God To Thee!"

A lurch, a crash, Valencia's hull
has plunged into the deep.
And closer round the shipwrecked waifs
Death's gruesome shadows creep.

Then, agonising awful shrieks;
oh God, from babies too!
As billows clasp the rigid forms
and human wreckage strew.

Again that noble woman's voice
sings of hopes to be-
for tempests dark but pave the way
"Nearer My God To Thee"

A holy calm- then silence deep-
teh sea has snatched it dead-
but Ah! the light of transformed souls
is gleaming overhead.

The grave may hold the body's shell
but heaven claims the soul.
And though we sink in life's dark sea
in God we find our goal.

*********************************

The rear cover bears the words:

There is no death; what seems so is transition.
This life of mortal breath is but the suburb to the life Elysian
whose portal we call death.
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
GHOST OF THE VALENCIA: (an odd PS) The following summer, 1907, the legend of the Valencia Ghost Ship began circulating. As the story went, the Valencia would appear,at night, and follow a course straight onto the rocks as she had in January 1906. At least one long article,and several shorter ones were written about this urban legend. HOWEVER, in the 1930s, a Valencia lifeboat (#5) was found floating in one of the Vancouver Island Sounds. It was not from the ghost ship, of course
happy.gif
Its condition indicated that it had been thrown ashore by a particularly high tide in 1906,and freed by another high tide or storm almost 30 years later. The name "Valencia" and part of the metal lifeboat's side was preserved, and can be seen in Vancouver's Maritime Museum.
 

Inger Sheil

Member
Dec 3, 2000
5,342
60
308
What an incredibly grim disaster. I've read stories of grounded ships where lifeboat crews stationed ashore were criticised for not acting quickly enough, or for not making enough effort to rescue the stranded, but I don't think ever such a litany of errors and lost chances.

Remarkable that the lifeboat was cast up so long afterwards.
 
Mar 28, 2002
1,015
12
221
I'd heard of this disaster before but I can't think for the life of me where and when. I think it was in connection with one of the survivors' life stories, possibly a chap from Britain. The story I read only mentions the disaster briefly and concentrated on his life after the Valencia.

Cheers,

Boz
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
I would have tossed the 1930s lifeboat story into the "circular file" had not part of the lifeboat been preserved. There was another story, dating to 1907, about a cave in the cliff face visible only at extreme low tide in which a lifeboat with Valencia skeletons reposed. I don't think a metal lifeboat could have floated for 30 or so years, so the only other options are A) it remained for 30 years lodged in some crag far enough from the water to prevent the waves from beating it to pieces before somehow working its way free and floating into Barkley Sound B) It remained for 30 years in the collection of someone who salvaged it in 1906, who then either set it adrift and "found" it again, or simply claimed to have "found" it for the sake of a better story, or C) the whole thing was a prank played by someone who had an old lifeboat on hand, remembered the Valencia wreck, who then doctored the boat and set it afloat. I tend to go B, A, C, in order of likelihood.

The Valencia debacle was 'sanitized' over the years, and until I read Michael Neitzel's excellent book, the version of the story I knew was told from the perspective of those on the cliff top and those on the two rescue ships which departed who, in both cases, made it seem as though they (the rescuers) had battled against overwhelming odds and lost. So, the book- with its direct from 1906 testimony- was an eye opener.

I think the only uplifting (and I use the term with reservations) thing about this whole affair is how well those aboard the ship conducted themselves after the initial panic which destroyed the lifeboats. Chief amongst them was a Greek fireman by the name of Cigalos who attempted, several times, to swim through the surge to shore with a line after it became apparent that no rescue was forthcoming from the land side. He survived those efforts, despite the odds, and eventually survived the disaster too, being one of those who risked putting to sea on the rafts. Was hailed by the public and awarded a medal.

One figure I left out of my account, is that of the 170 on board only 37 survived, with not a single woman or child among them- although at least two of the "ship's boys" did make it through the disaster and are visible in a group shot of survivors which ran in the papers soon after.

The wreck is still where it came to rest in 1906, with its stern in 10 feet of water and the bow at 25'-35' feet. It is now 'protected' and artifact removal has stopped. The cliff top is now part of one of the Canadian National Parks, and I am not sure if there is a sign there to indicate what happened on the rocks below.
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
Here is a link to where the best work on the disaster can be found and purchased:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1895811368/qid=1101814194/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl14/002-7417765-2004052?v=glance&s=books&n=507846

which is a book I recommend without reservation. Has dozens of pictures, the majority of which I have not seen before.

One photo, which he did not include, was taken by someone aboard the Queen City during the time she stood by the wreck, and shows Valencia with her bow submerged, stern close to the surface of the water and funnel and aftermast still standing. It was taken from quite a distance and so the passengers are not visible.
 
N

Nicolas Roughol

Guest
Jim,

Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed account of this wrecking. Quite interesting to read, I didn't know about this one.

While googling on the Valencia subject I found this page which provides a rather large scanned picture of Valencia: http://collections.ic.gc.ca/folklore/ocean/wreck/valencia.htm

On that same page is mentioned a rather spooky urban legend involving Valencia:
"Another account surfaced five months after the disaster, when Indian fisherman Clanewah Tom and his wife, scouring the adjacent beaches in their canoe, were attracted by the gaping mouth of a sea cave. Tom swam inside, only to beat a hasty retreat. Rushing to authorities, he claimed to have seen a lifeboat inside the cave, afloat and manned by eight skeletons. Upon hearing Clanewah Tom's breathless account, Carmanah lightkeeper W. P. Daykin dispatched his two sons to investigate. Even the Quadra, a lighthouse tender, had made an attempt at locating the mystery lifeboat. But they could never re-locate the cave which Tom had found."
 

Inger Sheil

Member
Dec 3, 2000
5,342
60
308
There seems to have been quite a vogue for the macarbe stories / shipwrecks and skeletons stories around the turn of last century. This reminded me of some of the rather bizarre tales connected with the missing ship SS Marlborough in the 1890s, involving reports of finding her run around with a skeletal crew still aboard (with some descriptions sounding like Walt Disney's 'Pirates of the Carribbean' ride). Basil Lubbock detailed a number of skeleton/lifeboat stories.

When divers were working on salvaging gold from the wreck of the SS Catterthun after it went down in 1895 (probably the deepest salvage done in the world up to that date), newspapers quoted one of them as having reported seeing several skeletons within the wreck, even giving their locations. The divers working on the project later categorically denied having seen any human remains.

I think the story of the Valencia is grim enough without needing window dressing (although the story of the lifeboat is a fascinating postscript!).

The story has a lot of similarities to the loss of the Cawarra, an iron paddle steamer, 552 tons, built in Glasgow, Scotland in 1864 for the Australian Steam Navigation Company. It ran aground during a great gale - later known as the Cawarra Gale, on Oyster Bank near Newcastle, NSW on 12 July 1866.

As people watched from the land, attempts to launch lifeboats failed when they capsized and the occupants were lost. Powerless and horrified, people on the shore watched as the remaining crew and passengers were gradually swept away by the heavy seas from where they clung to the ship. Meanwhile, great crowds assembled at the lifeboat station ashore. But rather than launching the boat, a dispute was underway as to who should go, and precious time was lost as selections were made, and virtually the crew was changed, and then further alterations made before finally, slowly, the lifeboat set out.

And then she turned, fearing the danger posed by the high seas, and to the dismay of some of the men in the boat who still wanted to try to reach the Cawarra.

There was only one survivor - Frederick Hedges, who had clung to the rigging, and then managed to hold onto a plank before being washed up against a harbour bouy. Ironically, one of his rescuers had earlier been the sole survivor of one of NSW's other great maritime tragedies, the loss of the Dunbar. Sixty-two lives were lost in total, in broad daylight and full sight of those ashore.
 

Jim Kalafus

Member
Dec 3, 2000
6,113
26
298
It also had elements of Western Australia's Zuytdorp wreck.....a site I hope to visit at some point. If one looks at photos of the Zuytdorp wrecksite and then looks at photos of the Valencia wrecksite they are remarkably similar.

Was reading another depressing Valencia account today, by Frank Bunker, the lifeboat wreck survivor at whom Charles Allison, who remained aboard Valencia until just before the end, "vented." It seems that there was a tenth member of their party whose face had been smashed in when he was thrown up on the rocks. The nine from the beach who survived abandoned him as an impediment, and apparently no search party was ever dispatched to see if he was still alive.
 

Jason D. Tiller

Moderator
Member
Dec 3, 2000
8,243
24
308
Niagara Falls, Ontario
What a horrible disaster. Thank you Jim for posting such a detailed account of what happened, I hadn't heard of this one before either.

I hope to visit Vancouver in the near future and will check to see if there is anything at the cliff top to indicate what happened.
 

Inger Sheil

Member
Dec 3, 2000
5,342
60
308
One of the great Australian maritime mysteries, Jim! Whether the survivors of the Zuytdorp joined a local tribe or not (might well have been one of the earliest contacts between Europeans and Indigenous Australians). Then there's the latter-day mystery as well...what happened to the 'carpet of silver', the coins that were looted before the WA Museum could get them. I'd love to visit the site as well - the WA Maritime Museum is wonderful institution, and has some good material on the wreck:

http://www.museum.wa.gov.au/mm/Museum/march/shipwrecks/Zuytdorp/Zuytdorp.html

What sort of local commemoration of the Valencia tragedy is there near the site, Jim?
 

Similar threads

Similar threads