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Remembering the wreck of the SS Northwestern

LOOKING BACK: There was a terrific snowstorm and it was a wonder if anyone could see even a foot in front of themselves
The SS Northwestern lies grounded on the Hump off Quadra Island on Dec. 15

I was there when the steamship Northwestern ran aground.  That was December 15, 1927, and I was seven years old.  I remember it well, because our family farm was perfectly situated where we could get a bird’s eye view of the entire event, and while some folks might think it was a tragic event, for us it was an answer to a prayer.

It had been a tough few years on Quadra Island.  Of course on our farm, we raised our own chickens, we kids tended the garden and fished, and my dad hunted.  My mother canned and smoked fish and put up preserves… but it wasn’t always easy to get anything fresh, especially in winter.

On the day in question, there was a terrific snowstorm and it was a wonder if anyone could see even a foot in front of themselves.  When you’re out on the water, it’s easy to lose sight of the land and for sea and sky to meet as one big white blanket.  Around here, it’s not too unusual for winter to bring heavy storms and gale force winds.  These a person can weather comfortably from shore; out on the water though, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

So the SS Northwestern, an American vessel, was on its way up from Seattle to Alaska, and was attempting to head into the passage between us and Vancouver Island when trouble began.  The captain of the Northwestern had been following the Union Steamship SS Chelohsin since Vancouver, but as he approached Quadra Island, he lost sight of the Chelohsin’s light as it veered right to head towards Cortes, and the Northwestern ran smack into the rocks at a point fondly known as ‘The Hump’.

It was a frigid day, and not much hope was held out for survivors.  But good fortune was with the crew and passengers as the ship ran aground in such a way that it didn’t actually sink  immediately, and the Explorer of Juneau fishing boat was out in no time at all to see who and what could be rescued.  My dad took his own little skiff out with the help of his brother, my Uncle Herbert, and they went straight into that weather to attempt to bring people to safety.

It took a couple of trips, but eventually, everyone, all 187 passengers, were safely loaded onto the two boats and taken across the way for the short trip to the Willows Hotel in Campbell River.  But I bet you, it must have felt like a long ride for those folks who had almost gone overboard to meet their fate in Davy Jones locker.  As it turned out, we heard they were treated well – warmed up and given hot coffee, and even a dance and entertainment was arranged!

Well, I could end my story here, but I haven’t got to the good part yet.  As I was saying earlier, it was a rare treat for us to get anything fresh during the long winter months.  The SS Northwestern happened to be loaded to the gills with all sorts of wonderful items destined for Christmas in Alaska.  Now, I’m no expert on maritime law, but our understanding growing up was that if it washed ashore, it was finders, keepers.  Even more than that, if it drifted within close proximity to the shore, that is, within reach of the family skiff, then it could be claimed too, with no questions asked.

So that is how we came to have an exceptionally nice Christmas that year, filled with the bounty that we all come to associate with the Yuletide season.  And I’m talking about a bounty!  There were crates of fresh oranges, just bobbing around in the waves, and bananas, and turkeys and ham and flour … My older sister and I had a whale of a time running to the beach and back with all our treasures.  It wasn’t gold, but it was good as gold.

The next morning, another American ship, the SS Alameda, picked up the Alaska bound passengers from the Northwestern, so it turned out that in the end, they had their Christmas too.