Valencia Bluffs, West Coast Trail

Valencia Bluffs, West Coast Trail

by | Feb 1, 2022

Valencia Bluffs are sea cliffs along the West Coast Trail in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on the southwest shore of Vancouver Island, about 29 miles (47 km) northwest of Port Renfrew and 11 miles (18 km) southeast of Bamfield, British Columbia. The bluffs were named for the steamship Valencia that wrecked here in 1906. In coastal areas with a relatively steep bathymetric slope, the continuous action of ocean waves on the coastline may create a steep cliff, the slope of which depends on a variety of factors including the jointing, bedding, and hardness of the bedrock. Waves breaking on a steep cliff face expend energy that erodes the base of the cliff, eventually creating a wave-cut notch with an overhang. This notch continues eroding until the weight of the overhanging cliff causes it to collapse. The loose debris is then gradually transported by waves and currents. On a coast consisting of material relatively resistant to erosion such as sandstone, limestone, or granite, a flat wave-cut platform is created in front of the cliff. Southwest Vancouver Island is comprised of distinct assemblages of geologic formations, or terranes, that have accreted onto the western margin of North America, principally the Wrangellia terrane that extends from Vancouver Island to central Alaska. Wrangellia consists largely of an oceanic plateau consisting of a vast outpouring of flood basalts, that erupted onto the ocean floor and was subsequently accreted to the western margin of the North American plate.  On the west coast of Vancouver Island between Port Renfrew and Barkley Sound, the Wrangellia terrane is overlain by marine sedimentary rocks of the Carmanah Group that were deposited during the Late Eocene to Late Oligocene. It generally covers no more than 0.6 miles (1 km) inland and ranges in elevation from below sea level to less than 330 feet (100 m). The Carmanah Group consists of interbedded sandstone, conglomerate, and shale that form the wave-cut platforms along this part of the coast. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, the Wrangellia terrane is intruded by a belt of plutonic rock called the Westcoast Crystalline Complex that formed during the Jurassic. This is exposed at Valencia Bluffs which is composed mainly of erosion-resistant amphibolite, diorite, and migmatite.

The maritime fur trade in the early 1800s was followed by a booming timber industry that created a rapid increase in shipping traffic. The Fraser River Gold Rush in 1858, the Leechtown Gold Rush near Sooke in the 1860s, the Caribou Gold Rush of 1862, the Klondike Gold Rush between 1897-1899 all fueled the movement of people and goods along the coast. The destination for most of these ships was the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a place with notoriously strong currents and stormy weather that caused hundreds of shipwrecks on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. SS Valencia was an iron-hulled passenger steamer built in 1882 as a minor ocean liner for service between Venezuela and New York City. The ship displaced 1,598 tons and was 252 feet (77 m) in length. In 1898, Valencia was sold to the Pacific Steam Whaling Company, which brought her around Cape Horn to the U.S. West Coast to provide passenger service between San Francisco and Alaska. On 19 June 1898, Valencia was chartered by the U.S. Army as a troop transport. Valencia also supported a survey of College Fjord in Prince William Sound led by Captain Edwin F. Glenn. In 1902, Valencia was sold to the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. After several incidents including a collision in Elliott Bay at Seattle, and a grounding at Saint Michael, Alaska, Valencia was moored in San Francisco and used only as a backup vessel. In January 1906, she was used for a run from San Francisco to Seattle. The weather was clear on departure, but at Cape Mendocino, the weather took a turn and a strong wind started to blow from the southeast. Unable to make celestial observations, and out of sight of land, Valencia missed the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Shortly before midnight on 22 January, she struck a reef 11 miles (18 km) off Cape Beale. To prevent her from sinking, the captain ordered her run aground on Vancouver Island but instead struck another submerged reef within sight of the shore. In the ensuing confusion, most of the ship’s lifeboats were launched and three capsized while being lowered, spilling their occupants into the ocean, two more capsized at sea, and one disappeared. The death toll was 136, only 37 survived, and every woman and child onboard Valencia died in the disaster. Valencia was one of the worst shipwreck disasters on the west coast and the final impetus for the creation of the Dominion Lifesaving Trail and the construction of the Pachena Point Lighthouse. Valencia is one of five shipwrecks at Valencia Bluffs. The others are Janet Cowen, Robert Lewers, Woodside, and Varsity.

Within days of the Valencia disaster, an investigation was launched into the incident. The investigation ran from 14 February to 1 March 1906, and the final report was published on 14 April. There was general agreement on the causes of the disaster, mostly attributable to navigational mistakes and poor weather. Safety equipment was, for the most part, in working order, but lifeboat drills had not been carried out. According to the report, the crew of the rescuing vessels did as much to help Valencia as could be expected under the circumstances. The loss of life was attributed to a series of unfortunate coincidences, aggravated by a lack of lifesaving infrastructure along Vancouver Island’s coast. A second investigation was launched by President Theodore Roosevelt. Its purpose was to determine the causes of the disaster and recommend how to avoid such loss of life in the future. Although some plans were already underway to improve the infrastructure, the public outcry that followed the wreck of Valencia spurred the Canadian government to undertake a comprehensive plan for improvements. The plan included the construction of a new lighthouse at Pachena Point near where Valencia had run aground, the creation of a coastal lifesaving trail with regularly spaced shelters for shipwrecked sailors, the construction of five wireless stations along the coast, the establishment of rescue surfboats stationed at Tofino and Ucluelet, and the Bamfield Lifeboat Station with a well-equipped rescue steamboat. In 1908, the Pachena Point Lighthouse was lit, and in 1911, the Dominion Lifesaving Trail was completed. In 1973, the trail became part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and was renamed the West Coast Trail. Read more here and here. Explore more of Valencia Bluffs and the West Coast Trail here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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