115 years ago, it was one of the worst nautical disasters to ever take place near Vancouver Island.
Now, the wreck of the SS Valencia, which saw the loss of over 100 people, will be the focus of a new exhibit at the Maritime Museum of BC.
“Shipwrecks are popular stories, of course,” said Brittany Vis, Executive Director of the museum, in an interview with Victoria Buzz.
“The Valencia is a very popular and well-known one here on the coast. It also has some ghost stories associated with it that a lot of people know.”
The SS Valencia was a passenger steamer that was temporarily servicing a route from San Francisco to Seattle in January 1906.
Stormy weather, strong southeastern wind and bad visibility took the ship off course, causing them to miss the Juan de Fuca Strait.
The ship ultimately collided with a reef near Cape Beale, off the southwest tip of Vancouver Island. Pandemonium followed, with an improperly trained crew loading lifeboats unsafely, leading to numerous deaths.
“They shouldn’t have even gotten out in the first place,” said Vis.
“The waves were just so strong and so high, and they were right on the rocks…they were just completely capsized right from the get-go. And people were falling to their deaths on these rocks, and the people still on board could do nothing.”
In the inquest into the disaster, it was determined that better training for crews was needed to prevent loss of life.
A new lighthouse was also built at Pachena Point to improve nautical safety. That lighthouse was first lit in 1908 and is still in operation today.
On top of the material consequences, a number of ghost stories cropped up in the years after the disaster.
Some sailors claimed to have spotted a spectral vision of the SS Valencia near Pachena Point, with human figures clinging to the rigging for dear life.
Vis, an English and History graduate of the University of Victoria and Master’s graduate of Libary and Information Science, composed and curated much of the exhibit’s content.
She says the public interest in the story reflects on our human fascination with the horrific.
“I think it just kind of speaks to the fact that we’re a little bit morbid,” she said with a laugh.
“It’s kind of that same reaction, like when you’re driving down a highway and there’s a car crash, and you’ve got to just slow down to take a look and see what’s going on.”
Victorians and visitors to the city will get their own chance to slow down and take a look at the SS Valencia’s story at the museum starting on Friday, March 12th. The exhibit will then run until September 2nd, 2021.
Like many businesses, the museum has been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, temporarily shutting down completely before gradually returning with some online learning and limited in-person capacity.
Vis says she wanted to include information in the exhibit on the mental health impacts of the SS Valencia’s loss, a theme that has resonance today.
“Back in 1906, we didn’t have as much understanding of the brain’s reaction to trauma,” she said.
“Nowadays, I think we can understand that piece a little bit more. I’m hoping people will be able to take that, and maybe shed a little bit more sense of deeper understanding of how things unfolded.”
The Maritime Museum of BC is currently located at 634 Humboldt Street. They will be open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., from March 16th to 27th.
From April to Victoria Day, they will be open Thursday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., before resuming Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until September 2nd.
SS Valencia: “A Theatre of Horror” at the Maritime Museum of BC
- When: Friday, March 12th to September 2nd, 2021
- Where: 634 Humboldt Street