1440 SS Valencia remembered
The Final Voyage of the Valencia
by Michael C. Neitzel
Victoria: Heritage House, 2020 (first published 1995)
$9.95 / 9781772033151
Reviewed by Ron Verzuh
SS Valencia Remembered: More than 100 women and children died needlessly in this tragic event off Vancouver Island in 1906
It wasn’t as world stopping as the sinking of the Titanic. There were no famous people on board and far fewer passengers than were on the maiden voyage of the big luxury liner that sank in 1912. But the tragic wreck of the American steamship Valencia off Vancouver Island’s rugged west coast, sometimes called the Graveyard of the Pacific, devastated the region when it happened in January 1906.
Michael Neitzel’s reissued 1995 book tells the story and, although its a thin book, his account exposes the actual tragedy, providing enough imagery to almost put the reader on the poop deck as the old steamer was going down for a third time.
There was plenty of blame to go ‘round. First Captain Oscar Marcus Johnson, lacking career experience, made a critical navigational error that led to the shipwreck. Then there was the lack of reliable inspections of the ship, owned by the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. Life jackets were possibly faulty. A later inquiry revealed still more errors.
Sadly, some local newspapers tried to blame the Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nation, suggesting they “were robbing the victims they found on the rocks.” As it turned out, the First Nation “played a major role in bringing out the victims.”
Much of the book relies on inquiry testimony from the few survivors – 37 men came out alive while more than 100 mostly women and children “perished within sight of land.”
Some of the most moving remembrances came from a Greek fireman named Joe Cigalos. In his broken English Cigalos explained that he volunteered swim to shore to attach a lifeline, but failed. “I try to get to shore again but the sea was so rough, if I cut the line to go out myself I might go but I was sorry for the other people.” He vividly remembered the rescue attempt.
“Before I started to swim their [passengers’] room was gone and people were on top of the poop deck and some were behind because big sea come and break the rooms,” he said. He recalled women tossing skirts onto a fire started to attract passing ships, but to no avail.
Neitzel also provides accounts of those who managed to escape to shore, but the inquiry sheds a horrible light on them, for the shore party, led by Frank Bunker, a professor, simply turned their backs.
Bunker “should have tried to reach the shore above the ship.” Had he done so, “all might have been saved,” Neitzel writes. “Why didn’t you come back to help us?” one survivor asked Bunker.
Also guilty were the rescue craft that did arrive on the scene, but all of them failed to act as Valencia’s passengers screamed to be saved, with “death staring them in the face,” as one newspaper headline described it.
Neitzel offers his own assessment of one rescue boat’s failure, the Canadian salvage tug Czar, calling it “a display of cowardice and disregard for human life that will remain a lasting blotch in Canadian maritime history.”
The federal Commission of Investigation concluded that “The primary and greatest cause of the loss of life,” “was the defective state of the aids to navigation and preservation of life in the shape of lighthouses, fog signals, life-saving equipment, and means of communication in the vicinity of the wreck.”
But in the moment, as “the Valencia was being pounded to pieces beneath those who clung to her for their very lives, it must have seemed that even God was looking the other way.”
There are no songs or poems that commemorate the tragedy, but Gordon Lightfoot came to mind as I read about it. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was about a different shipwreck at a different time and in a different place, but its immortal opening lines resonate here:
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
Nor are their any novels about the Valencia’s fate. But as I finished reading the book, I also thought of Lord Jim, the Joseph Conrad novel about a man who abandons ship only to find that the craft, crew and cargo survive the storm. There was redemption of a sort in the novel. None exists for the wreck of the SS Valencia, although the Western Wilderness Trail was improved as a result and serves as a reminder.
Perhaps poets and novelists will someday memorialize the desperate calls of the women and children on the sinking Valencia. For now, the legend of the wreck lives on with Michael Neitzel’s retelling.
Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian, and documentary filmmaker. His latest book, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2022), is reviewed here by Bryan D. Palmer. Editor’s note: See here for Ron Verzuh’s essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy, and here for Mike Sasges’ review of Ron’s Codename Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb. Ron has recently reviewed books by Peter J. Smith, Chad Reimer, Robin Winks, Tom Wishart, Janice Baker, & Lynn Campbell, Gregory Betts, Maureen Webb, and David Lester. Ron Verzuh’s work has appeared in The British Columbia Review since it was founded in 2016. He lives in Victoria.
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