The rugged west coast of Vancouver Island was the scene of many a shipwreck during the 1800s.
The Janet Cowan was a 4-masted barque that was caught in a violent gale and wrecked a few kilometers south of Pachena Point or not far from the Tscowis River and the northern terminus of the West Coast Trail.
It was New Year’s Eve, 1895, when the barque, Janet Cowan, in route from South Africa to Vancouver, BC, crashed on the rocks. There were 29 seafarers aboard under the command of Captain Thompson.
Thompson ordered the evacuation of the barque, as the constant battering of the waves against the hull would eventually send it on its side and break the vessel apart. A seaman bravely jumped into the cold and tempestuous surf and dragged a line to shore. The line was rigged with a bosun’s chair. Slowly the crew made their way to safety. In the tradition of the sea, Captain Thompson was the last to leave the ship. He lost his grip on the line and the bosun’s chair flipped, resulting in Thompson being dragged to shore, upside down, through the water. He survived the ordeal, but the worst for wear.
With constant snow or rain, cold temperatures, few supplies, and some survivors suffering from hypothermia, the decision was made to send nine of the strongest seamen in search of help. Their plan was to follow the telegraph line that linked Victoria with the lighthouses. Those who remained, would set up a camp on a bluff overlooking the ocean, from where they hoped to flag a passing boat. After eleven days of cold, miserable weather, five crew members succumbed to hypothermia, including Captain Thompson.
On January 11, an American tug, Tyee, rescued the survivors. A crewman from the tug recounted what he saw; “A sight …… that will not be forgotten for years to come. Seated about a fire were 13 men all wearing an expression of utter helplessness and misery.”
The nine other men reached a cabin along the telegraph trail and were rescued by Phil Daykin, the lightkeeper of Carmanah, who set off on foot along the trail after being telegraphed by the Tyee.
The old telegraph trail, established in 1890 to link Victoria to coastal lighthouses, was rough at best. Winter storms often brought down the line and washed out the trail. After the wreck of the Janet Cowan, Canada’s federal government talked about adding a lighthouse and developing the trail into a life-saving system, but no action was taken until one of the worst maritime disasters in modern history occurred on January 22, 1906, with the sinking of the passenger ship Valencia.