The SS Northwestern lies grounded on the Hump off Quadra Island on Dec. 15

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

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.

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

The volunteers at the Campbell River Seniors’ Centre have been waiting seven months to welcome people back to the facility, and are happy to have all the necessary safety precautions in place to do so, including a sign-in booth at the entrance for contact tracing requirements. Photo by Mike Davies/Campbel River Mirror
Campbell River Seniors’ Centre re-opens after seven months of COVID closure

‘If we close it again, it’s possible it won’t ever re-open, and the community needs this facility’

Another modular unit is lifted into place on the second floor of the new supportive housing complex being built at 580 Dogwood Street on Thursday this past week. Photo by Cleo Corbett/City of Campbell River
Campbell River’s newest supportive housing facility rises on Dogwood Street

Pre-fab modular construction means the building can go on the foundation in under five days

(Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay)
QUIZ: A celebration of colour

Fall in British Columbia is a time to enjoy a spectrum of vivid colours

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
B.C. driver thought he retrieved a dead bald eagle – until it came to life in his backseat

The driver believed the bird to be dead and not unconscious as it turned out to be

Chastity Davis-Alphonse took the time to vote on Oct. 21. B.C’s general Election Day is Saturday, Oct. 24. (Chastity Davis-Alphonse Facebook photo)
B.C. reconciliation advocate encourages Indigenous women to vote in provincial election

Through the power of voice and education Chastity Davis-Alphonse is hopeful for change

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

Most Read