The Titanic of the Pacific

The Titanic of
the Pacific

A tale of disaster, survival, and ghosts.
By Tyler Hooper

The Atavist Magazine, No. 138

Tyler Hooper is a journalist who resides in Victoria, British Columbia. His writing has appeared in CBC, Vice, and the Vancouver Sun, among other publications. He is the host and producer of the podcasts The Missing and Unexplained and True to the Story

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Illustrator: Yiran Jia

Published in April 2023.


It was a warm winter’s day in San Francisco, and the city’s main port, the Embarcadero, bustled with activity. Men dressed in waistcoats, blazers, and homburg and bowler hats smoked their pipes and fidgeted with their mustaches. Women in elegant blouses and skirts so long they touched the ground sheltered from the sun under broad-brimmed hats trimmed with feathers, ribbons, and flowers. Children clung to their mothers and watched wide-eyed as crewmen hauled more than 1,400 tons of cargo and freight—canned goods, fresh fruit and vegetables, crates of wine—into the forward hatch of the steamship Valencia, soon to depart for Seattle.

Frank Bunker and his family stood in the crowd waiting to board the ship. Today, January 20, 1906, marked the beginning of a new chapter in Bunker’s life. In his late thirties, with dark, neatly parted hair and a clean-shaven face, Bunker had recently accepted a prestigious job as assistant superintendent of the Seattle school district. He had built his reputation as a bright young teacher and administrator in San Francisco—one newspaper touted him as being among “the best educators in the state.” Seattle presented an exciting new opportunity. It was one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, with a population that had exploded from 3,553 people in 1880 to more than 80,000 by 1900. Bunker hoped to leave his mark on the city’s school system.

Seattle was thriving for one reason: gold. With the discovery of bullion in the Yukon and Alaska in the late 1800s, Seattle became known as the “gateway to gold” among prospectors looking to head north and make it rich. In a few short years, the frenzy had transformed Seattle from a frontier town into a metropolitan hub. Real estate, shipbuilding, and other economic sectors were booming.  

Industry was why F. J. Campbell, his wife, and their 16-year-old daughter were traveling to Seattle on the Valencia. Campbell was of average build, with a finely groomed mustache. He had been employed as an agent by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in Alameda, just across the bay from San Francisco, until he struck up a friendship with an employee of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, who convinced him that they could start their own machine business in Seattle. Eager to chase his fortune, Campbell quit his job, packed up his family, and secured passage north.

The Bunkers and Campbells were among the roughly 100 passengers booked on the January 20 journey. Originally, a ship called City of Puebla was scheduled to carry them to Seattle, but the vessel’s tail shaft had snapped on a recent voyage, so the Pacific Coast Steamship Company commissioned the Valencia in its place. The iron-hulled ship boasted three decks, a single smokestack, and two masts, as well as a 1,000-horsepower engine that allowed it to reach a cruising speed of 11 knots. The ship looked sleek, with a bow stretching 100 feet long. Because the Valencia was designed to run the warm Atlantic waters between New York and Venezuela, however, it could be challenging to guide through the notoriously volatile seas of the Pacific Northwest, where it had been sailing for the past several years.

Tasked with getting the Valencia safely to port was a crew of more than 60, led by Captain Oscar Marcus Johnson. A man of slender, rigid frame, Johnson came from a family of mariners. Born in Norway, he had traveled to America as a teenager. He started as a common seaman and worked his way up. Now 40, Marcus had been married to his wife, Mary, for five years. The couple resided with their three-year-old daughter on Powell Street, which connected San Francisco’s main fishing wharf to Market Street. Mary worried about her husband when he went to sea; she looked forward to the moment when she could wave to him from their front window upon his return. 

Mary wasn’t the only woman on Powell Street anxious for her husband’s well-being. Among the Johnsons’ neighbors were the Valencia’s fourth officer, Herman Aberg, and his wife. According to Mrs. Aberg, not long before Herman departed on the trip to Seattle, a fortune-teller arrived at their doorstep, knelt, and laid out what the Seattle Daily Times later called “ancient grease-covered cards.” The fortune-teller predicted that Herman would soon be shipwrecked, leaving Mrs. Aberg a widow. Herman laughed. Mrs. Aberg begged him not to go on the journey, but Herman went anyway.

Mrs. Aberg would describe the unheeded premonition later, when Herman did not return to Powell Street, meeting his end in the cold, cruel ocean hundreds of miles from home. It would prove just one haunting detail in a story full of them.

The fortune-teller predicted that Herman would soon be shipwrecked, leaving Mrs. Aberg a widow. Herman laughed. Mrs. Aberg begged him not to go on the journey.

A person prone to superstition might be forgiven for thinking that the Valencia was cursed. Built in 1882, the ship was fired upon the following year near the island of Curaçao, and again four years later, this time by a Spanish warship just off the Cuban coast. During the Spanish-American War, it was leased to the U.S. Army and used to transport troops to the Philippines as part of an unofficial effort to aid rebels who, like their Cuban counterparts, were vying for independence from Spain. When the conflict ended, the Valencia’s owners put it to work transporting gold-crazed passengers to and from Alaska and the Yukon, but the ship’s luck didn’t change in the new environment.  In March 1898, during its maiden voyage to Alaska’s Copper River, rough seas and poor food quality almost led to a mutiny. In February 1903, another steamship rammed into the Valencia a quarter-mile from Seattle’s harbor, nearly wrecking it. And in 1905, Captain Johnson ran it aground just outside St. Michael, Alaska; the crew had to move 75 tons of cargo onto another vessel before they could free the Valencia.

It is impossible to know if this legacy was on Captain Johnson’s mind after passengers finished boarding the Valencia and the ship sailed away from the Embarcadero, past Yerba Buena Island, and through the Golden Gate to the open ocean. Though Johnson occasionally commanded the Valencia, taking the ship up north during the summer months, he had only taken the route to Seattle as captain of a different steamship, called Queen. The trip required sailing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, part of the stretch of ocean between southern Oregon and the northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where hundreds if not thousands of ships had wrecked by the early 20th century, earning it an ominous moniker: Graveyard of the Pacific.

The region’s unpredictable weather and ocean currents often pushed ships toward the wet, rugged, foggy coastline, creating a navigational nightmare. The farther north a ship traveled, the worse the conditions tended to get, particularly in winter. Unlike the Atlantic coast, which had numerous harbors where ships could shelter during storms, the shore of the Pacific provided little refuge. Between San Francisco and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a distance of approximately 660 nautical miles, there were maybe ten harbors that could be used by ships the size of the Valencia, if conditions were favorable. If a vessel was in distress, running aground on a sandy beach was rarely an option, as there were few such beaches to speak of. Meanwhile, of the 279 U.S. coastal lifesaving stations, only a handful were on the Pacific.  

Johnson and his crew planned to keep the ship between five and twenty miles of the coastline for the duration of the voyage. They hoped to reach the Cape Flattery lighthouse on Tatoosh Island, marking the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, within 48 hours. They hoped, too, for calm seas. In November 1875, the steamship Pacific sank 80 miles south of Cape Flattery in under an hour, taking as many as 300 souls to their deaths.

The first day of the Valencia’s voyage was uneventful; the ship steamed smoothly into the starry night. By roughly 5:15 a.m. on Sunday, it had traveled 190 miles and passed the lighthouse at Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point in California. It was the last time the people aboard would have a clear view of the shore until they reached Washington State. Upon passing Cape Mendocino, it was typical for a ship’s captain to chart a course to the Umatilla lightship, 477 miles north. The lightship was at a critical junction in the voyage to Seattle, a beacon signaling that Cape Flattery, and a ship’s necessary turn eastward, was just 14 miles away. 

As the Valencia steamed up the coast, the weather worsened. On Sunday afternoon, the wind shifted from a northerly breeze to southeastern gusts. Gray clouds gathered over the ocean, and as the sky became hazy, the seas grew heavy.

At 5:30 p.m., Johnson noted in the Valencia’s logbook that the ship, then ten miles offshore, had passed Cape Blanco on the Oregon coast, meaning that it had traveled 335 miles from San Francisco. However, second officer Peter E. Peterson would later say that no one on the ship’s bridge could see the Cape Blanco lighthouse, perched atop 200-foot chalky-white cliffs.

The sun briefly appeared on Monday morning, but conditions declined as the day went on. Peterson later said that visibility reduced to the point that he could see only a couple of miles into the distance. It was evident that Captain Johnson was starting to feel anxious. That evening, around 8 p.m., he asked Peterson, “When do you think we are going to make Umatilla lightship?” 

Peterson was an experienced seaman who had worked for the Pacific Coast Steamship Company for nearly a decade. He had started as a sailor on the ship Pomona, where he lost a finger. By 1906, Peterson knew the route from San Francisco to Seattle well, having traveled it more than 100 times, including on the City of Puebla as second mate.

Now Peterson studied the Valencia’s log, an instrument trailing behind the ship to help estimate its speed, and concluded that they had traveled 307 miles beyond Cape Blanco. In theory that meant the ship was only 13 miles away from the Umatilla lightship and should pass it sometime around 9:30 p.m. However, Johnson and first officer W. Holmes believed that the Valencia’s log was overrunning by approximately 6 percent—in other words, they thought that the ship was traveling slower than the log showed. It’s not clear why Johnson and Holmes held that belief, though Johnson’s previous experience in the area may have held a clue. He had commanded ships in the area during spring and summer, when northerly winds prevailed. In winter the opposite was true; winds from the south propelled ships up the Pacific coast at higher speeds.

Peterson told the captain that he trusted the log, given the weather conditions and his knowledge of the ocean at this time of year. If anything, he suspected that the log was underrunning. But he did not press the point. This was Peterson’s first trip on the Valencia; he had joined the ship’s crew at the last minute, to replace an officer who had been transferred to another vessel. Peterson knew virtually none of the men on board, save for a few servers, two cooks, and a fireman. He had never worked with any of the other officers, and it was a violation of the accepted order on any ship to defy the captain. Later Peterson would say that he took no part in the calculations required to plot the Valencia’s course—that was Johnson’s and Holmes’s responsibility. 

By 9 p.m. on Monday, the Valencia’s log showed that the ship had traveled 652 miles, which would have put it very close to the Umatilla lightship. However, Johnson was adamant that the lighthouse was still some 40 miles away. Privately, Peterson believed that the Valencia was likely past the lightship, nearing the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Around this time, Johnson ordered a course change that would bring the ship closer to the coastline. He also told the crew to gauge the depth of the ocean beneath the ship every half-hour by taking sounding measurements. To do this, the men dropped an 1,800-foot cable into the water until it hit bottom. At 9:30 p.m., the crew detected a sounding of 480 feet. An hour later, they measured 360 feet. The shallower water likely meant that the ship was getting closer to land.

By 11 p.m., the ship was moving dead slow, just four or five miles per hour. Johnson was sure the Valencia was approaching Cape Flattery. The captain stood on the bridge, waiting to hear a fog signal bellow from shore. No sound came.

Peterson later claimed that Johnson and Holmes had discussed taking the vessel west and waiting in the open ocean until daylight to figure out their exact location, but Johnson never gave that order. Instead, the Valencia continued chugging east. The sounding measurement at 11:15 p.m. was 240 feet. At 11:35 it was 180. Ten minutes later, the ocean’s depth was just over 140 feet. 

These were not the expected readings for the area where Johnson thought the ship was—the water was getting too shallow too quickly. Panicked, he changed course again, plotting a northwest route. Soon after, Peterson spied a dark object on the ship’s starboard side. He ran across the bridge and pointed it out to the captain.

When Johnson saw the dark silhouette, he cried out, “In the name of God, where are we?” He ordered Peterson to direct the crew to turn the ship “hard to starboard.” Peterson sprinted to the telegraph to issue the instruction.

The ship turned sharply, but it was too late. Just a few minutes before midnight, the Valencia collided with a rocky reef. 


Frank Bunker could not sleep. That evening on the saloon deck, he had seen the ship’s crew conducting depth measurements. After Bunker retired to his quarters, he could still hear the deep whir of the sounding cable being lowered into the sea every half-hour, then every 15 minutes or so. The noise kept him and his wife, Isabel, awake in stateroom number 26. As midnight neared, Bunker noticed that the intervals of sound were getting shorter—he remarked to Isabel that the Valencia must be entering shallower waters.  

Just as Bunker finally began to doze off, the room shook violently. The commotion startled Isabel and woke their two children. Bunker jumped out of bed and put on his coat and trousers. As he rushed for the door to inquire what had happened, another tremor tossed his wife and children to the floor.

Half dressed, Bunker stepped onto the deck. The dull glow of the ship’s lights illuminated the scene before him. Crewmen ran frantically from the vessel’s bowels to the bridge, while various passengers in their nightclothes looked on in either bemusement or concern. Bunker asked a group of people what was happening. They said that the ship had struck something but didn’t think it was too serious.

By then, Johnson had ordered the crew to investigate whether any water was leaking into the cargo hold, which would mean that the ship’s hull had been breached by the reef. Initially the crew found only a few feet of water midship. But soon the ship’s carpenter reported seven feet in the hold as well as in the crew’s mess room.

The Valencia’s fate was sealed: It was sinking, and there would be no saving it. If the ship drifted out to deeper waters, the hold would fill in a matter of minutes, and everyone aboard would surely perish. Johnson looked at Peterson. “I am going to beach her,” the captain said. He wanted to lodge the ship firmly amid the rocks to buy time.

Johnson ordered the crew to put the ship in reverse at full power. The Valencia’s propeller sliced through the frigid 43-degree ocean water. As the ship’s stern slammed into the reef, the bow became submerged in the sea. One after another, waves cresting at ten feet crashed over the vessel.

In the darkness, the captain and crew could not see land, but they knew it must be close. Reaching it was now a matter of survival. The Valencia carried six lifeboats; two of them were wooden, while the rest were made of metal. The ship also had a workboat and three rafts—one made of wood, and two made of tule, a buoyant reed material. Taken together, there was enough space to transport everyone on board to the invisible shore.

Johnson ordered all crew on deck to prepare the lifeboats for launch. Peterson turned to run to his station, but when he reached a set of stairs he slipped and slammed his head against the deck.

The Valencia’s fate was sealed: It was sinking, and there would be no saving it.

Anxious voices outside his cabin roused F. J. Campbell from sleep. Half awake and half naked, Campbell slipped out of bed to see what the fuss was about. Outside, people rushed to put on life preservers while the crew lashed lifeboats to deck railings. Campbell ran back to his cabin, got dressed, and hurried to his wife and daughter’s quarters, where he helped them put on their life preservers before shepherding them to the deck.

Frank Bunker and his family were already there. “Take on the boats!” Bunker heard a crew member yell. The passengers did not know what to do. There had been no lifeboat drill since leaving San Francisco. People shoved one another as the crowd heaved toward the lifeboats.

Just then, the water pouring into the ship shorted out the electrical system, plunging everything into darkness. It was impossible to differentiate crew from passenger. Adding to the pandemonium were the rain and wind, which made it difficult to hear instructions.

When Frank Richley, the firemen’s mess boy, reached the lifeboats, he found a distraught cluster of passengers, including the Campbell family. Richley took Mrs. Campbell’s hand and helped her into the boat. The Campbells’ daughter was hysterical and sobbing; Richley picked her up and handed her to her mother. Mr. Campbell followed his wife and daughter, fighting other men for space in the boat. If he’d had a gun, Campbell thought, he would have waved it around to stop people from crowding one another.

Fifteen people climbed into the Campbells’ lifeboat, which was near capacity. As it was lowered down the ship’s side, foam-capped breakers slammed it against the Valencia’s hull, forcing Campbell and the other men to push the oars against the ship to avoid the small boat being smashed to pieces. Eventually, they reached the ocean’s surface, and the men managed to free the boat from its rigging.

Johnson, observing from the bridge, ordered a searchlight aimed at the lifeboat. Frank Richley watched as the light pierced the cloak of night. Men struggled with the oars, battling to keep control of the boat as waves sucked them away from the ship. 

On the Valencia’s deck, Frank Bunker heard a crew member cry: “For God’s sake, give the women and children some chance!” The man then picked up one of Bunker’s children and motioned for the family to follow him. They crossed to the ship’s starboard side, where a lifeboat was hanging from its davits.

The Bunkers piled into the boat with other passengers, as well as Richley. As it descended toward the sea, the boat swung wildly. Bunker thought they might all be tossed into the freezing water. The ordeal was so terrifying that a man and a woman on board decided to get back onto the Valencia. The woman jumped from the lifeboat and clung to a ship’s railing before being pulled onto the deck; the man managed to grab a pulley and haul himself up.

Once the lifeboat reached the water, Bunker placed his two-year-old son, his namesake, under a seat so the oars would not strike him. Then he and the other men aboard worked to free the boat from the Valencia’s keel. Richley, the only crew member on the boat, paddled frantically. “Let’s get her out to sea!” he yelled.

Some distance away, Campbell caught a glimpse of the second lifeboat clearing the Valencia. He and the other men on his boat could not get the tholepins, used to secure the oars to the sides of the craft, to lock into place. Left to the mercy of the waves, the boat moved in fits and starts toward what appeared to be a rocky shoreline, slowly emerging from the darkness.

Alongside the Campbell family was passenger Albert Willis, a 17-year-old Navy seaman. Willis had just completed his training in Pensacola, Florida, and had been assigned to the USS Philadelphia, anchored in Bremerton, Washington. Though he appeared young, with blond hair and boyish features, his experience at sea made him an asset. As Willis watched the other men struggle with the oars and tholepins, he noticed a small object bobbing in the water on the boat’s floor. It was the plug for the drain hole in the bottom of the boat. Without it in place, the boat would soon sink.

Willis grabbed the plug and jammed it into place, but he could not stop water from coming in. He tried to make a seal around the plug with his fingers, but the effort was futile. Before long a shadowy breaker threw the boat against a rock, and the passengers spilled into the frigid sea.

Campbell tried to hold on to an oar, but another passenger grabbed his leg, pulling him underwater. The two men struggled with each other and the undertow. Finally, Campbell felt the man’s grasp break. The stranger washed away in the icy water.

Still wearing his life vest, Campbell managed to kick his way to the surface. He let each wave push him closer to shore, clinging tightly to one rock and then another whenever the water receded. Campbell was exhausted and fighting for his life. It had not yet dawned on him that he had seen neither his wife nor his daughter since capsizing.

Unlike the men in Campbell’s lifeboat, Bunker and his fellow passengers managed to secure their oars. They pulled hard, trying to position the boat so it would ride the waves and not be rolled by them. Just as they seemed to gain control, Bunker looked over his shoulder and saw a large swell headed straight for them. It collided with the lifeboat, tossing the occupants into the sea. 

When Bunker surfaced, he swam toward the white hull of the overturned lifeboat. He could not find anything to grab onto, so he jammed his freezing fingers into a tiny crack in the wood. Soon another wave struck the lifeboat, righting it. Bunker managed to pull himself in; there was so much water in the boat that it was only inches from sinking. He was shocked to find his wife sitting exactly where she had been before the boat flipped. Either Isabel’s life preserver had gotten caught on the bench, keeping her in place as the boat rolled, or she had climbed back into the boat before her husband.

Isabel told Bunker to search for their children. He frantically scanned the nearly submerged boat. He plunged his hands into the water, trawling along the floor until he felt a life preserver. He pulled hard and found that the vest was still attached to his son. The boy was not moving and did not look to be breathing. Bunker laid him across his lap and started chest compressions to get the water out of his lungs. Suddenly, the boy coughed and cried. It was a moment of relief, cut short by the fact that Bunker’s daughter was nowhere to be found.

Isabel turned to her husband and said that she was so cold—she was not sure how long she could hold on. A dark shape jutted into the sky ahead of the boat’s bow. “There is land,” Bunker said to his wife. “If you can hold on a few moments longer, perhaps we will be on the beach.”

As Bunker consoled her, he heard a cry for help from the side of the boat—it was Frank Richley, still in the water. Bunker pulled him into the boat. The four survivors huddled together as the sea pushed them toward the looming bluff. Bunker tightened his grip around his wife and son, bracing for impact when they reached the shore. They hit rocks and the boat stayed upright, but only for a moment. Another wave slammed into the craft, plunging the occupants into the ocean once again.

Bunker was dragged out to sea by the undertow, then hurled against the rocks by the incoming waves, a pendulum of movement that was sure to kill him if he did not get to land. He managed to grab hold of one a rock and inch his way up the surface on his belly. He grasped for sand, dirt, land. He tried to stand, but his life preserver felt as heavy as a block of concrete—it was waterlogged.

Bunker mustered the strength to break the strings of his vest, then crawled forward on his hands and knees. He had made it to a beach. It was pitch dark. Then he heard someone call out.

Campbell had reached the beach, too, and pried himself out of his life jacket. Once free he stared out at the Valencia. It was only a few hundred feet from shore. The proximity was jarring. So too was the fact that Campbell had no idea where he stood. He could only assume he was on the coastline of Washington State. But where exactly? How far from civilization, from help?

Campbell was one of seven men to survive the first lifeboat’s capsizing. The others were George Billikos, a fireman on the Valencia, who lost his shoes in the water; Albert Willis, the Navy seaman, whose pants snagged on a rock when the boat rolled; and Yosuki Hosoda, Mike Stone, Tony Brown, and Charles Samuels, all passengers. Only Bunker and Richley survived from the second boat. All the women and children in both vessels were lost.

The nine men cried out in the dark and followed one another’s voices. They converged at the base of an 80-foot cliff, the silhouette of which Bunker had seen just before he lost his wife and son. Rain pelted the men, all of whom were hypothermic. They packed together to keep warm. The roar of the ocean was incessant.

At one point, Bunker staggered away from the group toward one of the lifeboats, which had reached the shore and sat overturned. An inkling of hope spurred him to search it. He crawled underneath, but no one was there. What he did find was a can of oil. He brought it back to the group and poured the contents over a lifejacket. Someone produced a match, but it was wet. The men gave up on the idea of a fire.

In the distance, above the ocean, a red bolt shot through the sky. The streak was followed by a loud bang. Sparks arced toward the heavens, illuminating the Valencia, stuck in the rocks below. The waves were pounding the vessel, flooding it, breaking it apart. The men realized that the Valencia’s demise would not be quick.

In the light of the distress flare fired from the ship, the survivors on shore could just make out the contours of the ghostlike figures on board waving their arms. Before the men could wave back, the sky went black.

When Peter Peterson recovered from his fall, the Valencia was in chaos. The ship’s remaining lifeboats launched one after another to catastrophic failure. A panicked passenger cut the aft tackle of one of them. “Like a shot the stern of the boat fell to the water’s edge, leaving the bow hanging in the air,” Frank Lehm, the Valencia’s freight clerk, later wrote of the scene. “The occupants were spilled out like pebbles from a glass and fell with shrieks and groans into the boiling surf…. The next wave swept them away, and where the glare of the searchlight played on the water we could see the white, terrified faces of the drowning people flash by with the look of deathly fear such as is seldom seen.”

Peterson made his way to his lifeboat station, where he and other crew members helped eight men and three women into a boat. Peterson jumped into the vessel to steady it at the same moment someone shouted to lower it down. Off-kilter, Peterson clung to some mesh wire on the edge of the ship. Just as he thought he might lose his grip, a fellow sailor grabbed him and pulled him to safety on the Valencia. The lifeboat was lowered into darkness, only to be overtaken by the sea.

All told, as many as 60 people died in attempts to get the lifeboats off the Valencia. By Tuesday morning, several hours after it hit the reef, only two rafts and one lifeboat remained on the ship, along with roughly 60 passengers. For now, the crew ceased trying to launch the remaining vessels. Everyone was cold, tired, and hungry. They needed rest. They would try again at first light.

According to one account, some passengers grew desperate and leapt overboard; whether they had been hopeful or suicidal, none survived. Children cried out for parents they could not find. Eventually, amid howling wind and biting rain, survivors seeking refuge from the elements assembled in the dining saloon, where kitchen staff prepared sandwiches. Many people went without food, however, as most of the ship’s provisions sat submerged in the rising water belowdecks. 

On the bridge, Captain Johnson tried to keep his composure. He still did not know where the Valencia was. He could not surmise if either of the first two lifeboats had made it to shore. He watched as relentless breakers engulfed the forward components of the ship: the pilot house, the chart house, and, soon enough, parts of the bridge.

Johnson and the crew decided to set off emergency flares, hoping someone, anyone, might come to their aid. One of the flares misfired, mangling Johnson’s hand. Another shot into the black sky, revealing a cliff. There was land, and not far. Some of the Valencia’s passengers thought they saw figures on the beach and frantically waved.


Early on Tuesday, January 23, with the faint gray hue of daylight creeping over the horizon, Frank Bunker and the other eight men on the beach decided to move. They could not stay where they were without food and water, and they needed to determine their location.

Bunker tried to find a path leading away from the beach, to no avail. The only way out would be to scale the steep bluff. Bunker found a promising stretch of rock, dotted with roots and ferns he could grip while climbing. He began to ascend and made it far enough up that he decided the route was safe, then went back down to inform the other men.

They waited until the sun rose to climb. Bunker led the way, showing the group where to place their hands and feet. He positioned himself at one particularly difficult spot to assist each man as he passed. The last to take Bunker’s hand said that there was a tenth survivor on the beach, one who must have escaped the Valencia on another lifeboat. He appeared to have gone insane and refused to climb the bluff. Bunker told the others to wait for him at the top while he investigated.

He descended to the beach and scanned until he found the man. His face looked like he had been raked against the rocks as he washed to shore. He was delirious; there was no way he could climb. Bunker laid out two life jackets, eased the man onto them, and left him there, then ascended the bluff.

Bunker described what the men saw at the top as “terrible brush, a frightful place.” The ground was laden with mud, rocks, and roots, and thick with salal bushes. In a surreal moment, fueled by hunger, exhaustion, and hypothermia, one of the men thought he saw pieces of paper on the ground. Bunker told the men that if this was so, they must be “near civilization.” When they finally reached down and picked up the paper, they discovered that it was chunks of snow.

In time the men spotted a telegraph cable and a corresponding trail running along the coastline. Now they faced a choice: They could follow the crude path and seek help, or remain near the beach in the hope that the Valencia’s remaining crew could get a line to shore, which the men might need to secure for the people stranded on the ship to be towed to safety.

A debate ensued. Bunker was adamant that the men go find help; he was not convinced that the Valencia could get a line to shore. Frank Richley disagreed. “Let’s stay by here and see what we can do for the ship,” he said. George Billikos, the fireman, also wanted to stay on the bluff. According to Billikos, Bunker said that no one had to follow him, but that he had lost his wife and children, and now he was going to save himself.

All the men except Billikos followed Bunker into the brush. Even Richley went. Billikos stayed behind at first, but alone, freezing, and without shoes, he quickly changed his mind. He would take his chances with the others. He hurried to catch up.

Bunker tried to find a path leading away from the beach, to no avail. The only way out would be to scale the steep bluff.

For the people on the Valencia, dawn finally brought the shoreline into focus. The sight of land, however, offered little reprieve. They could make out no features to help them identify their location, and no signs of life—no structures, paths, or people. They saw only ridges, trees, and shrubs. “Taken as a whole, it would be hard to find a place so comparatively near to civilization yet practically so inaccessible and isolated as the place where the Valencia went ashore,” a report later stated.

Swimming to shore was all but suicide, a fact made clear by the bobbing corpses of passengers who had fallen or leapt into the sea. “The bodies of the drowned, which by that time, must have numbered full sixty, were seen floating around the beach and dashing up against the iron-bound cliff, which loomed so close to us,” freight clerk Frank Lehm wrote. “The bodies were caught by the waves, thrown against the rocks, and then caught by the undertow and drawn back.”

It seemed that the only hope for those still aboard lay in the remaining lifeboat and two small rafts. Around 8 a.m., boatswain Tim McCarthy approached Captain Johnson and said that the ship would not last much longer—the ocean was simultaneously devouring it and taking it apart at the seams. Johnson ordered McCarthy to gather volunteers to take the last lifeboat to shore, where the Valencia’s crew would aim a Lyle gun, a short-barreled cannon that fired a projectile with a rope attached to it. Once the volunteers on the shore had secured the rope, passengers and crew would evacuate the ship—they would slip one by one into a harness known as a breeches buoy and be pulled ashore.  

This was McCarthy’s second outing on the Valencia, but he had more than 15 years of experience at sea. He grew up fishing off Gloucester, Massachusetts, and had “sailed in steamboats and steamers and everything that has floated,” according to later testimony. McCarthy was not a physically imposing figure—he was wiry and of average height—but he was confident and commanded respect from the crew. 

When McCarthy asked for volunteers to join him on the lifeboat, one of the first to raise his hand was Charles Brown, who since 1891 had worked on English sailing ships and American coasting vessels. McCarthy asked sailor John Marks if he would come, too. Marks replied, “I’ll go anywhere.” In all, six men set off on the mission.

The sea had become even heavier throughout the morning, and it would require finesse to get the small vessel into the open water without capsizing. The men took their places and locked in their oars. McCarthy sat in the back, ready to steer, and studied the waves. They would need to break away just as a swell passed the ship.

One wave rolled by, then another, then another. On McCarthy’s command, the men oared the boat away from the Valencia’s hull. A wave caught them, and while they managed to keep the boat from tipping over, one of the oars snapped in two. McCarthy urged the men to row hard, and when they cleared the Valencia’s bow, they let out a yell of triumph. McCarthy quickly silenced the elation—they still had to get to shore. “Go to it for all you are worth!” he cried, and the men leaned into their oars.

On the Valencia, Peterson and other crewmen moved the Lyle gun to the aft of the ship, which offered the best position for getting a line to shore. The crew tied a rope to the projectile, primed the cannon, angled its barrel, and ignited the fuse. The first attempt failed, as the line chafed against the box and broke. A second line was prepared, and a loud boom echoed through the ship as the projectile launched into the air, arcing over the beach. It landed on top of the bluff. There it would wait for McCarthy and his crew.

Not everyone was confident that the men would succeed in reaching land, much less in securing the line. Fireman John Segalos (or Joe Cigalos, according to some reports), a Greek immigrant who had come to America to make money to support his aging mother, looked at the roiling sea and convinced himself that he could swim to the beach with a rope line and secure it from there. He took off his coat and vest. In his pocket was a small knife; he would need to cut the line he was carrying if it snagged on debris or, worse, a corpse. “I have to die sometime,” he said. “I might be dead, or I might do something.” Then Segalos looked to the sky. “God help us!”

He tied an end of the line around his waist and told one of the ship’s engineers to pull on the rope if he disappeared beneath the waves. When he saw his chance between swells, Segalos dove. The shock of the freezing water sent the air rushing from his lungs. He flailed his arms, surfaced, and swam, dodging rocks and logs.

People gathered at the Valencia’s railing and watched as Segalos struggled to get to shore. He did not make it far: The line around his waist became entangled, so he cut it. Segalos then turned and tried to make his way back to the ship, but a large log slammed into his head. Someone threw him a buoy, and passengers pulled him aboard.

Segalos was rushed to one of the few dry bunks left on the ship and given whiskey and fresh clothes. “It seemed to suck the life out of me,” he said of his experience in the sea, “and time after time, as I tried to make the shore, I found myself getting weaker and weaker.”

Another crew member also tried to make it to the beach, but he too had to be rescued. Now all the survivors could do was wait and see if McCarthy and the other men in the lifeboat could make landfall and find the line shot from the Lyle gun. But hope was fading fast: The boat was no longer in sight.  

“The bodies of the drowned, which by that time, must have numbered full sixty, were seen floating around the beach and dashing up against the iron-bound cliff,” freight clerk Frank Lehm wrote.

The lifeboat did not capsize. Rather, it traveled several miles north as the men aboard fought with the ocean to make a safe landing on shore, away from crashing breakers and jagged rocks. McCarthy and his crew still believed that they were somewhere along the coast of Washington State, and they kept heading north in the hope of finding the Cape Flattery lighthouse. After several hours, they were soaked, tired, and breaking or losing oars one after another—still there was no sign of the lighthouse.

Eventually, they spied a beach that looked suitable for landing. The men angled the boat toward shore and peeled off their heavy life jackets. “If we should happen to hit the beach,” McCarthy said, “be ready to jump before the boat turns over and kills us.” For once there was good luck: The men paddled in unison, crested a wave, and slid onto shore. McCarthy looked at his watch, which miraculously was still ticking. It was five minutes after one on Tuesday afternoon.

The men knew they needed to head south if they were to get to the Valencia and secure a line for the survivors. They began to walk, sticking to the coastline at first, but a large waterfall and cliff soon hindered that plan. They turned inland and tried to carve a path through thick bramble but gave up after about 100 yards. Back on the beach, they decided to go north, clambering over driftwood and rocks, only to encounter a fast-moving river. When McCarthy waded into the water, his foot got stuck in the mud, and the group thought better about trying to cross. Back to the lifeboat they went.

Then through the fog one of the men spotted a telegraph line at the beach’s edge. They followed it until they came to a cabin—a decrepit shack, really. As the men examined the structure and its surroundings, one of them called out, “I think there is a trail here!” They followed the path, bushwhacking their way through overgrowth. After a few minutes they came across a white signpost nailed to a tree. “Three miles to Cape Beale,” it read in big black letters. The men looked at one another, confused.

They were not in Washington. The Valencia had traveled farther north than Captain Johnson believed—the reef it struck was just off the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island. McCarthy’s party had made landfall at a place called Pachena Bay, and Cape Beale was the lighthouse closest to the wreck. There, perhaps, the men could find help. They set out northward, using the telegraph line as their guide.

In 1889, the Canadian government began installing more than 100 miles of telegraph wire from the city of Victoria up to Cape Beale. Before then lighthouse keepers and people living in small villages along the coast had no easy way to communicate with the rest of the world; local First Nations communities were still using dugout canoes to get from place to place with whatever information needed to be shared. No one had any way of calling for help in an emergency, including a ship in distress.

The telegraph wire was strung between trees, and a telephone line was added in 1899, when the technology was still in its infancy. Linemen were hired to maintain it. Each lineman was responsible for a 25- or 30-mile stretch of wire. The job was arduous: Linemen were tasked with navigating the rough trail that followed the wire and repairing sections downed by storms or fallen tree. They waded through waist-high rivers, crawled through steep gorges and ravines, used homemade ladders to reach high portions of line, and avoided bears, wolves, and cougars as best they could. When necessary they took refuge in huts built along the trail.

As McCarthy’s group set off, they had no idea that Bunker, Campbell, and other survivors from the Valencia were following the telegraph line, too, several miles to the south. That party’s progress was slow. At least two of the men had no shoes. One had a badly sprained ankle. Albert Willis was nursing an injured finger and what he thought might be several broken ribs. Meanwhile, the trail was hazardous, littered with rocks and logs slick from the winter rain. Thick brambles and dense underbrush snaked through the woods. To the west was a steep drop to the sea that a man could easily tumble off if he tripped or was pushed by the wind. The constant sound of waves crashing into the jagged rocks was a stark reminder that death could be imminent.

After crossing four gullies, early Tuesday afternoon the Bunker party descended a steep part of the trail that led to an expansive beach. They were grateful to be walking on flat ground. Eventually, they came to the Darling River, swollen with winter runoff. On the opposite side they saw a cabin. The telegraph wire ran straight through it.

After surveying their options, the men realized that there was no easy way to cross the river—they would have to swim against the current. One man would go first with a rope and secure it on the far bank so the others could use it for support as they crossed. Bunker volunteered. He tied a rope around his waist and dove into the raging river. The men on the shore watched, praying that the torrent wouldn’t carry him away. Bunker made it across and secured the rope, and soon the others joined him.

Together the men staggered toward the cabin. They burst through the door and were elated at what they found: a stove, benches, rolled-up blankets stored in the rafters, a couple of coats, a can of moldy beans, some bacon, lard, an axe. And a receiver, designed for both telephony and telegraphy. Bunker rushed to the receiver, hoping that the device worked and that someone was on the other end.


Around 2 p.m. on January 23, David Logan received a message at his home in the remote settlement of Clo-oose. Logan was one of Vancouver Island’s first telegraph linemen. The message he received was a plea for assistance. The sender relayed that a ship had wrecked traveling from San Francisco to the Puget Sound, that 50 people had drowned, and that perhaps 100 people remained on board. The sender also indicated that a band of survivors were sheltering in a cabin.

Logan called the Carmanah Point lighthouse telegraph office, located four miles south of Clo-oose. He told the lighthouse keeper about the message, and the keeper agreed to send his son, Phil Daykin, and another man north to meet Logan so they could form a search party and find the shipwreck.

Meanwhile, at the Cape Beale lighthouse, the keeper’s wife, Minnie Paterson, also received Bunker’s message, though she struggled to understand it, perhaps due to damage in the transmission line. Not long after, Paterson heard her large Scotch collie bark, followed by the scurry of her children’s footsteps as they ran for the yard. Paterson, who was eight months pregnant, got up to see what was causing the commotion. Through a window, she saw six weary figures approaching the lighthouse. It was McCarthy and his men.

Paterson made her way to the door as her children sprinted toward them.

“You are the shipwrecked crew,” Paterson said in greeting. “I was so sorry we could not connect with you.” 

McCarthy appeared baffled. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Were you not trying to talk to us from further along the line?”

McCarthy realized that if Paterson had received a message, there must be other survivors. Perhaps passengers and crew on the first two lifeboats had made it to shore. “We are off the Pacific Coast Company’s boat Valencia that was wrecked along here. I don’t know exactly how many miles it is,” McCarthy told Paterson. “I want you to telegraph to Victoria or Seattle to get assistance.” 

Paterson escorted the men into the lighthouse. She fiddled with the receiver, trying to reach the men in the Darling River cabin, and finally established a connection. On the other end was Bunker. He relayed that he had lost his wife and children and that there were nine men in his party—seven passengers and two crew. He said they were in bad shape.

Paterson assured McCarthy and the other men at the lighthouse that their fellow survivors would be rescued. Then she turned back to the receiver and started wiring another message. This one would let the world know about the disaster unfolding off the coast of Vancouver Island.

McCarthy realized that if Paterson had received a message, there must be other survivors. Perhaps passengers and crew on the first two lifeboats made it to shore.

At around 3:30 p.m., Captain James Gaudin, a marine agent for the Canadian Federal Department of Marine and Fisheries, was at his desk in Victoria, preparing to go home early, when he received a telegram from Cape Beale that made him jolt from his seat. “A steamer has been wrecked,” it read. “About one hundred drowned. Nine have reached the telegraph hut. Will wire particulars later.” 

Gaudin knew the schedules of the ships passing through the area, and he knew that the Valencia was late to reach its destination. This wasn’t necessarily an anomaly—ships ran behind all the time. Now Gaudin wondered if something disastrous had happened.

A second message confirmed his fears. “Steamer Valencia ashore in [a] bad place,” it read. “About 110 people on board. Rush assistance. Six men have just reached here. Between 50-60 drowned.”

Gaudin picked up his telephone. He would not be going home anytime soon.

As word of the wreck spread, three ships set out to reach the Valencia: Czar, a tug boat; Queen, the steamship sometimes commanded by Captain Johnson; and Salvor, a wrecker helmed by H. F. Bullen. Bullen assumed that the Valencia’s remaining passengers and crew had already abandoned the ship, and that the Salvor would do what it was built to do: gather valuables and usable materials from the wreckage.

All three vessels were en route by Tuesday evening, traveling west through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They would need most of the night to reach the Valencia, but as the ships got closer to the open ocean, they were battered by strong winds and seas. The crews decided to wait until dawn before forging ahead. The next morning, the three vessels convened at the Carmanah Point lighthouse, where they were informed that the wreck was roughly 11 miles northwest, near Seabird Rocks. The Salvor, Czar, and Queen continued up the coast.

Just after 8:30 a.m., Herbert Beecher, a local mariner who had volunteered to be on the Queen that day, placed a spyglass to his eye and squinted down the barrel. He scanned the fuzzy horizon until his eyes made out the Valencia, lodged fast on a shallow reef. The bow faced the ocean, and the stern was pointed toward the nearby shore. Breakers crashed over the decks. Survivors had lashed blankets in the rigging for shelter and confined themselves to the last bit of the hurricane deck not yet submerged in the ocean. Plumes of smoke appeared. Beecher was ecstatic: People were alive and needed rescuing.

The Queen was too big to get close to the wreck, so it drifted a couple of miles offshore as the Czar slowly maneuvered through shallower waters to assess the situation. The Czar’s crew reported back to the other vessels that they saw no signs of life. The Queen’s captain, N. E. Cousins, later claimed that he tried to dispute this report, describing what Beecher had seen through the spyglass. But there was either a miscommunication or a misunderstanding, because at 10:15 a.m. the Czar and the Salvor both vacated the area.

The Queen remained where it was, and the mariners aboard began discussing rescue options. They could deploy the ship’s lifeboats, but Cousins worried that the vessels would not make it through the mist, wind, and ten-to-fifteen-foot seas. As the weather worsened, Cousins went to his quarters to put on his oilskin coat. Someone came to the door and told him they had spotted another ship: City of Topeka, a larger vessel in the same fleet as the Queen and the Valencia, had steamed through the night from Seattle to reach the scene.

Cousins made his way to the bridge just as the City of Topeka pulled alongside his ship. Cousins shared what he knew with J. E. Pharo, the assistant manager of the ships’ parent company who was aboard the City of Topeka, and Pharo told him to return to Victoria. Pharo may not have wanted another vessel out of commission, since that would cost his company money. The Queen was instructed to load passengers and embark on a scheduled trip to San Francisco.

Cousins did as Pharo told him. Meanwhile, the City of Topeka steamed toward shore, looking for the Valencia. With scarcely any visibility, the ship went up and down the coast, even reaching as far as Cape Beale, until finally someone spotted a dot floating in the sea.

Plumes of smoke appeared. Beecher was ecstatic: People were alive and needed rescuing.

The ocean had consumed most of the Valencia’s cabins. The last of the food was gone. During the night, some passengers stripped off their clothing to make a torch, a tremendous sacrifice considering the cold. They dipped the garments in kerosene and set them ablaze, hoping to attract attention. No one came.

Sometime Wednesday morning, the foremast rigging gave way, plunging 20 to 30 people into the icy water. A few were lucky enough to be pulled back on board. A slew of bodies were swept away from the ship and crushed against the rocks close to shore.

Then, around 9 a.m., a familiar shape was spotted, the contour of a ship in the distance. A wild cheer broke out. Two smaller vessels soon appeared, coming nearer the wreck than the first. None of the vessels got close enough to establish contact. Passengers waved blankets from the rigging. Some suggested setting off the Lyle gun to attract attention. The fuse sparked, the gun went off, and smoke poured from the barrel.

Captain Johnson stood on deck and watched the three ships sit idle in the rain and fog. He instructed the remaining crew to take the two rafts still on board and load as many people as possible into them. Johnson would not be going anywhere. He knew that his responsibility was to stay aboard the Valencia until the very end, whatever that entailed.

Those onboard were stunned when none of the surviving women would get in the rafts. They believed that with ships in sight, rescue might be imminent. If it wasn’t, the women had little reason for hope. Many had watched their husbands and children die. They preferred to stay where they were. Some began to sing “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” a hymn that in just a few years would become famous for reportedly being the last song sung aboard the Titanic.

Men readied the rafts. The first group to leave consisted mainly of crew members, including chief cook Samuel Hancock. After clearing the ship around 10 a.m., the men rowed toward the distant vessel—only one seemed to remain—but then lost sight of it. Hancock knew there was a northerly current and told the men to keep the shoreline in sight.

Peter Peterson stood on the Valencia’s deck, watching as the topmast came crashing down and the hurricane deck finally caved in. It was now or never—the last raft needed to leave the ship. Captain Johnson tried to change the women’s minds. “This is the last chance,” he said. One replied, “We might just as well die on the ship as die on the raft.”

Approximately 20 male passengers and crew, including John Segalos, who had tried to swim a line to shore, squeezed into the raft. Johnson told Peterson to go, too. Once in the water, the men used large pieces of wood to paddle.

The men aimed for shore, until a mess boy cried out. He could see smoke in the other direction. Soon they spotted a large black hull cutting through the water, then two large masts. They heard three loud whistles pierce the air. It was the City of Topeka.

The captain of the City of Topeka sent a lifeboat out to meet the men in the raft. The survivors were in a ghastly state, their skin purple and numb. A crewman tossed a line to Segalos. Peterson began to lose consciousness as the lifeboat towed the raft toward the ship. He could barely keep his head above the waves washing over the raft. The last thing he remembered before blacking out was pulling alongside the City of Topeka.

The survivors were rushed to the ship’s doctor. After being examined, they were given whiskey, dry clothes, and warm blankets. “If we had been an hour longer on that raft, I believe every man would have gone insane,” Joseph McCaffrey, a passenger on the Valencia who was picked up by the City of Topeka later said to a newspaper reporter. “One could tell by the looks in the eyes of his companions that reason was fast departing. Just touch one of the men and he would growl like a trapped animal.”

During the night, some passengers stripped off their clothing to make a torch, a tremendous sacrifice considering the cold. They dipped the garments in kerosene and set them ablaze, hoping to attract attention. No one came.

The raft carrying Hancock and a handful of other men drifted north, farther than intended. It passed Cape Beale and entered a bay dotted with islands. Everyone aboard was hungry, injured, and exhausted. One man died, likely from exposure; the others threw his body overboard. Two men, perhaps driven mad, jumped into the sea. When the survivors finally beached on Turret Island around midnight, one man attacked Hancock and attempted to eat him. The others subdued the man, who curled up on the ground and never got up. The next morning, a survivor named Frank Connors seemed to go insane, according to Hancock, and ran off into the trees in search of a lighthouse he believed he saw.

In total, only four men who washed up on Turret Island survived. Hancock and firemen Max Stensler and George Long would be rescued from the island on January 25. The following day, Connors would be found wandering nearby.

Down south, the survivors resting with Minnie Paterson at the Cape Beale lighthouse waited to be rescued, as did the Bunker party, huddled in the cabin on the Darling River. Meanwhile, the search party consisting of David Logan, Phil Daykin, and Joe Martin was approaching the Valencia’s location. The trio had hiked several miles, sleeping on the ground overnight and using a damaged canoe to cross a swift-moving river. At a rocky outcrop, they spied a line of rope suspended in the trees and, suspecting it had been fired from a Lyle gun, followed it to the edge of a cliff. Down below, just offshore, was the Valencia.

The scene was brutal. Bodies of the dead littered the shore. People still clung to the ship’s wreckage, flinching when icy ocean spray hit them. When the survivors spied the three men on the cliff, they cheered and hollered. But the search party was ill-equipped to help. The line from the Lyle gun had snapped. The men could not find a path down to the beach. There seemed to be no way to reach the ship.

Just after noon, the ocean swallowed the Valencia. A massive wave swept over the ship, and Logan, Daykin, and Martin watched as dozens of people fell into the sea. Some of them, hugging pieces of debris, were swept into the abyss, while others were caught in the waves and dashed against the rocks. Two clung to the aft mast, the only part of the ship still visible, until they could no more. Logan, Daykin, and Martin stood by, helpless. “The end of the Valencia,” Canadian author Richard Belyk would later write, “was a theatre of horror.”

Eventually Logan, Daykin, and Martin left the cliff and hiked three miles to the Bunker party’s cabin. When Logan spotted one of the survivors, who had emerged from the hut to greet them, he shouted over the rushing of the Darling River. The men needed to use the telegraph to send a message to Cape Beale: The Valencia was gone.


In the days following the sinking of the Valencia, debris kept washing to shore. So did corpses. All told, an estimated 126 crew and passengers died in the wreck, including every woman and child on board. David Logan, First Nations communities, and the crew of a ship called Grant scoured Vancouver Island’s beaches at low tide, collecting waterlogged bodies and preparing them to be shipped to Victoria and Seattle.

While other survivors journeyed home, Frank Bunker stayed behind to help with the search. His wife and children were never found. Nor were F. J. Campbell’s wife and daughter. Captain Johnson’s body was lost, too. Fourth officer Aberg, whose wife had believed a fortune-teller’s claim that her husband would perish at sea, was among the dead who were found. He wore a blue sweater and a monogrammed ring, and he was identified by survivors.

When possible the dead were sent home by ship to loved ones. Some were left where they were found because the terrain made retrieval too difficult. Others were in such an advanced state of decomposition that they were impossible to move. Among the bodies recovered, many could not be identified because of bloating, or because waves and rocks had smashed their features. A coroner’s description of one reads, “Height 5 feet 11 inches. Weight 200 pounds or more. Reddish moustache. Laced shoe, No. 10. Striped shirt, blue and white. Dark vest, with Union label. Black tie. Black socks; Flesh coloured underwear. Grey and black trousers. Long hands. Dark Hair. Features unrecognizable. Taken to Hanna’s, Undertaker. Coffin marked ‘XIII’ at foot and on lid.” 

The unidentified were buried along the coast in unmarked graves. At one site, on a beach near Tofino, large crosses marked their final resting places. Eventually, a funeral service would be held at the Grand Opera House in Seattle for some of the dead. A 50-piece band played “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” a senator delivered remarks, and a poet recited original verse. Then a procession of more than 300 people followed a funeral car drawn by six white horses to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where more than a dozen unidentified bodies from the Valencia were laid to rest beneath a shared monument.

The tragic news of the Valencia’s demise raced across the continent. It made the front pages of newspapers in Canada and the United States. The horrific details fueled public outcry. Families and friends of those who had perished wanted answers: How could so many people die so close to shore? Soon politicians in Ottawa and Washington, D.C., were being grilled.

Both governments commissioned reports to determine what had gone wrong and what could be done to prevent future tragedies. The Canadian inquiry was headed by marine agent James Gaudin, who had received a telegram about the wreck from Minnie Paterson at Cape Beale. By March 20, 1906, the probe had reached its conclusion. Ultimately, the commission blamed Captain Johnson, who was found to have “made a grave error of judgment in attempting to make the entrance to the Strait in such weather as prevailing at the time without exhausting every means of ascertaining his position.”

The American inquiry also found that, given Johnson’s uncertainty about the Valencia’s position, he should have taken the ship out to the open sea until he could safely chart a course to Seattle. “Such action Captain Johnson failed to take,” the report stated, “and upon his improper navigation in this respect must rest the primary responsibility for the disaster.” (Johnson was not the only person whose reputation was sullied by the wreck. J. E. Pharo, assistant manager of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, submitted his resignation even before the U.S. report found it inexcusable that he had ordered the steamship Queen to leave the scene of the wreck, where it might have participated in a rescue operation.)

Both government reports made recommendations to improve maritime safety, including better lights and foghorns at key points along the West Coast. “If such a terrible disaster must occur, it must be regarded primarily in the nature of a lesson for the future—a lesson not to be disregarded,” the U.S. report stated, “and if the government, acting upon this lesson, shall make all reasonable provisions within its power for the safeguarding of this coast, the victims of Valencia will not have perished in vain.” The Canadian government urged that new vessels built to travel the region include watertight compartments belowdecks. It also called for building more lighthouses on Vancouver Island, equipping them with rescue boats, and clearing a lifesaving trail along the coast so shipwrecked survivors could reach shelter and assistance.

Before those changes could be made, Minnie Paterson became famous when another ship, a 168-foot sailing vessel called Coloma, foundered just off Cape Beale. With the telegraph line down, Paterson set out on her own in rain and wind, hiking several miles through marshes, streams, and vegetation, to find help. The Canadian government awarded her a silver plate for her efforts. She died of tuberculosis five years later.

John Segalos, the fireman who tried to swim to shore and was later picked up by the City of Topeka, was awarded multiple medals for his bravery on the Valencia, including one from the Seattle chamber of commerce. In time, though, his life fell into disarray. In 1928, after relocating to the East Coast, he was robbed and assaulted, and his cherished medals were stolen. He died, almost destitute, at the age of 76. For his part, Frank Campbell shared his witness account of the tragedy, then disappeared from the historical record, his fate lost to time.

When Frank Bunker finished looking for bodies from the Valencia, he continued on to Seattle to begin his job with the city’s public schools. He did not stay long—Bunker returned to California and served as superintendent of schools in Berkeley until he lost a bitter school board election. He then headed east, became a professor of school administration in New York, and published several books. He later opened one of the first junior high schools in America.

Bunker remarried in New York, but he never had more children. The specter of his son and daughter, lost in the Pacific, must have been ever present as he devoted his life to education. “I have no children now,” he said many years after the wreck, “but I know nothing as dear as a little child.” Bunker died in 1944.

Over time the wreck of the Valencia became more than a cautionary tale. To locals on Vancouver Island, it evolved into a ghost story. As early as 1906, witnesses reported strange occurrences near the reef where the ship sank. A local Nuu-chah-nulth man, Clanewah Tom, claimed he saw a boat full of skeletons in a coastal cave a few hundred yards from the wreck. Mariners described glimpsing a phantom ship with wraithlike figures clinging to its sides floating just offshore.

In 1933, captain George Alexander MacFarlane found the lifeboat Tim McCarthy and a few other men used to get to shore in a farmer’s field in the Alberni Valley of Vancouver Island. MacFarlane removed the nameplate with an axe and kept it in his home. In 1956, it was donated to the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, where it remains today, along with other remnants from the wreck. 

Most of the Valencia, however, still sits where it sank. The reef and rocks that doomed the ship can be seen from the West Coast Trail, the name given to the 75-kilometer path that the Canadian government carved along the shore to improve rescue operations in the wake of the Valencia disaster. The trail, now primarily used for hiking, traces the old telegraph line that Bunker, Campbell, and other survivors followed to find refuge.

The wreck occurred near kilometer 18 of the path. On the bluff overlooking the sea, which Bunker and other survivors scaled, there are two red Adirondack chairs. For the unknowing it is a peaceful spot, a place to rest and watch the waves crash against the rocks below. But reminders of the past lurk just below the breakers: plates from the ship’s hull, a section of the engine, a propeller and its shaft. Under the weight of the ocean, pieces of the Valencia rest in their shallow grave.  

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