Situated near Bamfield on the west coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island, Cape Beale Lightstation was first established in 1874. One of the most nightmarish shipwrecks in the region called the “Graveyard of the Pacific” occurred in January of 1906 when the American passenger steamer Valencia struck the rocks near Cape Beale in dense fog.
One hundred seventeen people died in the disaster, through no fault of Keeper Tom Patterson and his wife Minnie. Minnie Patterson spent 36 straight hours at the telegraph key during the ordeal, and she fed and cared for some of the survivors. But it was another event later that same year that brought her widest fame.
As daylight arrived on Cape Beale on December 6, 1906, the area was under assault by an 80-knot gale and heavy seas. Keeper Patterson spotted a crippled vessel offshore, its masts reduced to kindling. The ship was the bark Coloma out of San Francisco. The captain and crew of ten clung desperately to the stunted remains of the mizzenmast as the ship was threatening to break apart.
Keeper Patterson attempted to summon aid by telegraph, but the line had been severed by the storm. Six miles away off Bamfield Creek the lighthouse tender Quadra lay at anchor. The best hope was for Minnie to try to reach the Quadra while Tom stayed on duty and watched to see if the ship struck the rocks. Minnie left in such a rush that she was wearing her husband’s slippers and clothes that were not nearly suited for the harsh conditions she’d encounter.
Minnie’s first obstacle was the deep frigid water that separated the lightstation from the mainland. She decided to not take the skiff, and instead made her way through icy seas that reached to her waist. Through the cold, dark woods Minnie forged on. Knee-deep in mud during part of the journey, she fell numerous times in the face of hail and wind.
When she arrived at Bamfield Creek, the rowboat Minnie expected to find was nowhere in sight. She continued to the McKay home where Annie McKay, daughter of a former keeper, joined her. The two women launched a skiff and reached the Quadra, four long hours after Minnie Patterson had left the lighthouse. But she refused a chance to rest, preferring to return to care for her young child at home.
The men on the Coloma were taken aboard a longboat from the Quadra just as the bark was breaking apart. Minnie was the sudden focus of attention from many newspapers and received a gold medal and silver plate from the Canadian government. She told a reporter that she would have gladly given up the awards and the attention to have not had the wrecks.
Minnie’s health was never the same after her epic hike in the storm and she died five years later of tuberculosis. But the role she played in the rescue of the crew of the Coloma was nothing short of superhuman, and she will always be remembered as one of the most luminous of lighthouse heroines.
This story appeared in the
August 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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