Glassware from the S.S. Northwestern. Museum at Campbell River photo

LOOKING BACK: The S.S. Northwestern – The story of two pieces of glassware

A look back into the history of the Campbell River area

By Beth Boyce, Curator,

Museum at Campbell River

As part of our 60th Anniversary year, the Museum at Campbell River produced a book that highlights the stories of 60 items from the Museum’s collection. The book talks about these physical remnants from our past, and brings their stories to life. This is one of those stories.

When looking at this pink, frilly glassware, you do not immediately think “Shipwreck.” However, this delicate candy dish and vase were recovered from the wreck of the S.S. Northwestern, an incident that has become immortalized in Campbell River’s early history.

The waters to the south of Cape Mudge have long been recognized as hazardous. The combination of the tides and the shallow shoals off the cliffs make for a dangerous mix, especially in stormy weather. A lighthouse installed at Cape Mudge in 1898 in recognition of these dangers had reduced the number of shipwrecks. However, it could not prevent the S.S. Northwestern running aground during a particularly violent winter snowstorm in 1927. The Northwestern was bound for Alaska, laden down with passengers and supplies for the Christmas season, when it went aground just off Cape Mudge in the early hours of December 14.

Although the weather kept rescuers from accessing the ship for nearly eight hours, the 187 passengers and crew were rescued without incident. They were taken to the Willows Hotel where they were accommodated, fed and fêted with a dance at the Lilelana Pavilion while they waited for a steamship to take them safely back to Seattle.

Because the ship and its contents were insured, law stipulated that any perishable items had to be destroyed. Quadra Islanders and Campbell Riverites could not bear to see so much food and so many supplies wasted. Some were so bold as to steal onto the wreck before the insurance adjusters could arrive to take stock, but most rowed out to the wreck to salvage what they could as it was being thrown overboard for disposal by the crew of the Northwestern.

Locals hid their rescued goods from officials who threatened to search all the homes in the region for contraband. Canned goods were hidden under floorboards and behind walls, while the perishable items such as oranges, made slightly salty by their swim in the sea, were immediately enjoyed. It was remembered fondly by Quadra Islanders as one of the best Christmases.

We do not know for whom these Depression glass items, as they became known, were intended, but it is remarkable that they have survived. They endured a shipwreck and being thrown overboard. They were recovered by Velma Cuthbertson, who treasured them. Her daughter Shirley donated these pieces to the Museum. They have been displayed many times, sharing the dramatic story of the Northwestern and the impact it had on Quadra Islanders. The vase and dish are the only items in the Museum’s collection salvaged from the wreck.

The book 60: Collected Stories from the Museum at Campbell River is available at the Museum at Campbell River Shop.

LOOKING BACK is a monthly column by the Museum at Campbell River on a topic from the region’s history

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