Tyler Hooper | The Atavist Magazine | April 2023 | 2,285 words (8 minutes)
This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 138, “The Titanic of the Pacific.”
It was a warm winter’s day in San Francisco, and the city’s main port, the Embarcadero, bustled with activity. Men dressed in waistcoats, blazers, and homburg and bowler hats smoked their pipes and fidgeted with their mustaches. Women in elegant blouses and skirts so long they touched the ground sheltered from the sun under broad-brimmed hats trimmed with feathers, ribbons, and flowers. Children clung to their mothers and watched wide-eyed as crewmen hauled more than 1,400 tons of cargo and freight—canned goods, fresh fruit and vegetables, crates of wine—into the forward hatch of the steamship Valencia, soon to depart for Seattle.
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Frank Bunker and his family stood in the crowd waiting to board the ship. Today, January 20, 1906, marked the beginning of a new chapter in Bunker’s life. In his late thirties, with dark, neatly parted hair and a clean-shaven face, Bunker had recently accepted a prestigious job as assistant superintendent of the Seattle school district. He had built his reputation as a bright young teacher and administrator in San Francisco—one newspaper touted him as being among “the best educators in the state.” Seattle presented an exciting new opportunity. It was one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, with a population that had exploded from 3,553 people in 1880 to more than 80,000 by 1900. Bunker hoped to leave his mark on the city’s school system.
Seattle was thriving for one reason: gold. With the discovery of bullion in the Yukon and Alaska in the late 1800s, Seattle became known as the “gateway to gold” among prospectors looking to head north and make it rich. In a few short years, the frenzy had transformed Seattle from a frontier town into a metropolitan hub. Real estate, shipbuilding, and other economic sectors were booming.
Industry was why F. J. Campbell, his wife, and their 16-year-old daughter were traveling to Seattle on the Valencia. Campbell was of average build, with a finely groomed mustache. He had been employed as an agent by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in Alameda, just across the bay from San Francisco, until he struck up a friendship with an employee of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, who convinced him that they could start their own machine business in Seattle. Eager to chase his fortune, Campbell quit his job, packed up his family, and secured passage north.
The Bunkers and Campbells were among the roughly 100 passengers booked on the January 20 journey. Originally, a ship called City of Puebla was scheduled to carry them to Seattle, but the vessel’s tail shaft had snapped on a recent voyage, so the Pacific Coast Steamship Company commissioned the Valencia in its place. The iron-hulled ship boasted three decks, a single smokestack, and two masts, as well as a 1,000-horsepower engine that allowed it to reach a cruising speed of 11 knots. The ship looked sleek, with a bow stretching 100 feet long. Because the Valencia was designed to run the warm Atlantic waters between New York and Venezuela, however, it could be challenging to guide through the notoriously volatile seas of the Pacific Northwest, where it had been sailing for the past several years.
Tasked with getting the Valencia safely to port was a crew of more than 60, led by Captain Oscar Marcus Johnson. A man of slender, rigid frame, Johnson came from a family of mariners. Born in Norway, he had traveled to America as a teenager. He started as a common seaman and worked his way up. Now 40, Marcus had been married to his wife, Mary, for five years. The couple resided with their three-year-old daughter on Powell Street, which connected San Francisco’s main fishing wharf to Market Street. Mary worried about her husband when he went to sea; she looked forward to the moment when she could wave to him from their front window upon his return.
Mary wasn’t the only woman on Powell Street anxious for her husband’s well-being. Among the Johnsons’ neighbors were the Valencia’s fourth officer, Herman Aberg, and his wife. According to Mrs. Aberg, not long before Herman departed on the trip to Seattle, a fortune-teller arrived at their doorstep, knelt, and laid out what the Seattle Daily Times later called “ancient grease-covered cards.” The fortune-teller predicted that Herman would soon be shipwrecked, leaving Mrs. Aberg a widow. Herman laughed. Mrs. Aberg begged him not to go on the journey, but Herman went anyway.
Mrs. Aberg would describe the unheeded premonition later, when Herman did not return to Powell Street, meeting his end in the cold, cruel ocean hundreds of miles from home. It would prove just one haunting detail in a story full of them.
A person prone to superstition might be forgiven for thinking that the Valencia was cursed. Built in 1882, the ship was fired upon the following year near the island of Curaçao, and again four years later, this time by a Spanish warship just off the Cuban coast. During the Spanish-American War, it was leased to the U.S. Army and used to transport troops to the Philippines as part of an unofficial effort to aid rebels who, like their Cuban counterparts, were vying for independence from Spain. When the conflict ended, the Valencia’s owners put it to work transporting gold-crazed passengers to and from Alaska and the Yukon, but the ship’s luck didn’t change in the new environment. In March 1898, during its maiden voyage to Alaska’s Copper River, rough seas and poor food quality almost led to a mutiny. In February 1903, another steamship rammed into the Valencia a quarter-mile from Seattle’s harbor, nearly wrecking it. And in 1905, Captain Johnson ran it aground just outside St. Michael, Alaska; the crew had to move 75 tons of cargo onto another vessel before they could free the Valencia.
It is impossible to know if this legacy was on Captain Johnson’s mind after passengers finished boarding the Valencia and the ship sailed away from the Embarcadero, past Yerba Buena Island, and through the Golden Gate to the open ocean. Though Johnson occasionally commanded the Valencia, taking the ship up north during the summer months, he had only taken the route to Seattle as captain of a different steamship, called Queen. The trip required sailing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, part of the stretch of ocean between southern Oregon and the northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where hundreds if not thousands of ships had wrecked by the early 20th century, earning it an ominous moniker: Graveyard of the Pacific.
The region’s unpredictable weather and ocean currents often pushed ships toward the wet, rugged, foggy coastline, creating a navigational nightmare. The farther north a ship traveled, the worse the conditions tended to get, particularly in winter. Unlike the Atlantic coast, which had numerous harbors where ships could shelter during storms, the shore of the Pacific provided little refuge. Between San Francisco and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a distance of approximately 660 nautical miles, there were maybe ten harbors that could be used by ships the size of the Valencia, if conditions were favorable. If a vessel was in distress, running aground on a sandy beach was rarely an option, as there were few such beaches to speak of. Meanwhile, of the 279 U.S. coastal lifesaving stations, only a handful were on the Pacific.
Johnson and his crew planned to keep the ship between five and twenty miles of the coastline for the duration of the voyage. They hoped to reach the Cape Flattery lighthouse on Tatoosh Island, marking the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, within 48 hours. They hoped, too, for calm seas. In November 1875, the steamship Pacific sank 80 miles south of Cape Flattery in under an hour, taking as many as 300 souls to their deaths.
The first day of the Valencia’s voyage was uneventful; the ship steamed smoothly into the starry night. By roughly 5:15 a.m. on Sunday, it had traveled 190 miles and passed the lighthouse at Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point in California. It was the last time the people aboard would have a clear view of the shore until they reached Washington State. Upon passing Cape Mendocino, it was typical for a ship’s captain to chart a course to the Umatilla lightship, 477 miles north. The lightship was at a critical junction in the voyage to Seattle, a beacon signaling that Cape Flattery, and a ship’s necessary turn eastward, was just 14 miles away.
As the Valencia steamed up the coast, the weather worsened. On Sunday afternoon, the wind shifted from a northerly breeze to southeastern gusts. Gray clouds gathered over the ocean, and as the sky became hazy, the seas grew heavy.
At 5:30 p.m., Johnson noted in the Valencia’s logbook that the ship, then ten miles offshore, had passed Cape Blanco on the Oregon coast, meaning that it had traveled 335 miles from San Francisco. However, second officer Peter E. Peterson would later say that no one on the ship’s bridge could see the Cape Blanco lighthouse, perched atop 200-foot chalky-white cliffs.
The sun briefly appeared on Monday morning, but conditions declined as the day went on. Peterson later said that visibility reduced to the point that he could see only a couple of miles into the distance. It was evident that Captain Johnson was starting to feel anxious. That evening, around 8 p.m., he asked Peterson, “When do you think we are going to make Umatilla lightship?”
Peterson was an experienced seaman who had worked for the Pacific Coast Steamship Company for nearly a decade. He had started as a sailor on the ship Pomona, where he lost a finger. By 1906, Peterson knew the route from San Francisco to Seattle well, having traveled it more than 100 times, including on the City of Puebla as second mate.
Now Peterson studied the Valencia’s log, an instrument trailing behind the ship to help estimate its speed, and concluded that they had traveled 307 miles beyond Cape Blanco. In theory that meant the ship was only 13 miles away from the Umatilla lightship and should pass it sometime around 9:30 p.m. However, Johnson and first officer W. Holmes believed that the Valencia’s log was overrunning by approximately 6 percent—in other words, they thought that the ship was traveling slower than the log showed. It’s not clear why Johnson and Holmes held that belief, though Johnson’s previous experience in the area may have held a clue. He had commanded ships in the area during spring and summer, when northerly winds prevailed. In winter the opposite was true; winds from the south propelled ships up the Pacific coast at higher speeds.
Peterson told the captain that he trusted the log, given the weather conditions and his knowledge of the ocean at this time of year. If anything, he suspected that the log was underrunning. But he did not press the point. This was Peterson’s first trip on the Valencia; he had joined the ship’s crew at the last minute, to replace an officer who had been transferred to another vessel. Peterson knew virtually none of the men on board, save for a few servers, two cooks, and a fireman. He had never worked with any of the other officers, and it was a violation of the accepted order on any ship to defy the captain. Later Peterson would say that he took no part in the calculations required to plot the Valencia’s course—that was Johnson’s and Holmes’s responsibility.
By 9 p.m. on Monday, the Valencia’s log showed that the ship had traveled 652 miles, which would have put it very close to the Umatilla lightship. However, Johnson was adamant that the lighthouse was still some 40 miles away. Privately, Peterson believed that the Valencia was likely past the lightship, nearing the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Around this time, Johnson ordered a course change that would bring the ship closer to the coastline. He also told the crew to gauge the depth of the ocean beneath the ship every half-hour by taking sounding measurements. To do this, the men dropped an 1,800-foot cable into the water until it hit bottom. At 9:30 p.m., the crew detected a sounding of 480 feet. An hour later, they measured 360 feet. The shallower water likely meant that the ship was getting closer to land.
By 11 p.m., the ship was moving dead slow, just four or five miles per hour. Johnson was sure the Valencia was approaching Cape Flattery. The captain stood on the bridge, waiting to hear a fog signal bellow from shore. No sound came.
Peterson later claimed that Johnson and Holmes had discussed taking the vessel west and waiting in the open ocean until daylight to figure out their exact location, but Johnson never gave that order. Instead, the Valencia continued chugging east. The sounding measurement at 11:15 p.m. was 240 feet. At 11:35 it was 180. Ten minutes later, the ocean’s depth was just over 140 feet.
These were not the expected readings for the area where Johnson thought the ship was—the water was getting too shallow too quickly. Panicked, he changed course again, plotting a northwest route. Soon after, Peterson spied a dark object on the ship’s starboard side. He ran across the bridge and pointed it out to the captain.
When Johnson saw the dark silhouette, he cried out, “In the name of God, where are we?” He ordered Peterson to direct the crew to turn the ship “hard to starboard.” Peterson sprinted to the telegraph to issue the instruction.
The ship turned sharply, but it was too late. Just a few minutes before midnight, the Valencia collided with a rocky reef.