Brotchie Ledge is a submerged reef in the Strait of Juan de Fuca one-half mile south of the entrance to Victoria harbour. It remains underwater even at low tide and is a major hazard for ships approaching or leaving Victoria. Since 1843, a variety of markers have warned ships away from the dangerous rocks. The nautical chart above locates Brotchie Ledge in relation to the shore. (Canadian Coast Guard graphic) The photo shows the current beacon as seen by walkers on the Dallas Road waterfront pathway. (Norm Ringuette photo)
The current Brotchie Ledge beacon stands 9.4 metres above high water. This Coast Guard photo, taken soon after the beacon was erected in 1989, shows the white cylindrical fiberglass tower topped with a green band on a concrete base. The flashing green light is run by two solar panels. The Coast Guard identifies the beacon as Brotchie Ledge Light #205, 48º 24' 24" N and 123º, 23' 11.5" W.
The first segment in this history describes the array of navigational aids installed on or near the reef during the past 162 years and explains how the reef got its name. The final segment details the spectacular shipwreck of the San Pedro and the following six year effort to refloat or remove the wreck.
Beacons, buoys and markers (1843-2005)
Brotchie Ledge was important in the early history of Victoria because everyone and everything arrived by ship. With only nine feet of water at its shallowest, the ridge was a significant danger to shipping. (BC Pilot, Vol I, BCGNIS) That is why Hudson’s Bay Company employees installed the first buoy on the reef--then called Buoy Rock--soon after Fort Victoria was established in 1843.
In a further effort to signal the location of the rocks, tall poles were erected on the nearest hill. Victoria’s most famous hill and park were named Beacon Hill as a result. At first, there was just one “beacon” on the hill, an empty barrel on a pole. Later, two tall masts were erected. Walbran cites the journal description of these poles by Captain Kellett, who surveyed the Strait of Juan de Fuca for the Royal Navy in 1846: “The westerly beacon had a triangle on it and the other a square target or drum; thus when the observer saw the latter through the triangle he was on the rock.” (Captain John T. Walbran, British Columbia Place Names (1592-1906), Their Origin and History, Government Printing Bureau, Ottawa, 1909, p. 19)
The reef was called Buoy Rock until 1849. Captain Walbran states that name was used “circa 1843.” (Walbran, p. 64-64) Many early charts, maps and written materials incorrectly spelled it “Bouy Rock.”
The naming of Brotchie Ledge
When Captain William Brotchie ran his ship into it, the name Buoy Rock was replaced. “It was renamed Brotchie Ledge in 1849 by the officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company from the circumstance of the barque Albion striking on it in command of Brotchie...” (Walbran, p. 64-65)
The name Brotchie was misspelled in early records as “Brotchy” Ledge. The misspelling can be traced to Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor Joseph Pemberton, who wrote “Brotchy” on a 1855 map. (BCGNIS, “Geographical Names Information System, the master database for British Columbia’s place names”) Canadian Department of Marine and Fisheries continued that misspelling for decades in their Annual Reports.
Scottish-born Brotchie (1799-1859), was captain of at least five Hudson’s Bay Company ships, including the Beaver. It is not known If Brotchie was at the helm of the Beaver when James Douglas established Fort Victoria, but he was one of only two possibilities. According to Derek Pethick, HBC records show Brotchie “commanded the steamer from some time in 1842 till some time in 1843 and [Alexander Duncan] from some time in 1843 until November 1844.” (Pethick, S. S. Beaver: The ship that saved the west, Mitchell Press, Ltd., Vancouver, 1970, p. 45-46)
Brotchie was on the brig Dryad in 1831, commanded the Cadboro from 1835 to 1838, the Nereide in 1839 and was the first captain of the Cowlitz. He was “in charge of the Albion in 1849 when it ran onto a reef near Victoria.” (Pethick, p. 73) [Note: Brotchie’s Albion was a barque, a different ship from the H.M.S. Albion whose “crumpled keel” is currently exhibited in the northwestern corner of Beacon Hill Park. The H.M.S. Albion hit a sunken reef off Killett Bluff, Henry Island in 1889, thirty years after Brotchie died.]
Brotchie attempted an unsuccessful spar business before being appointed harbour master for Vancouver Island by James Douglas in 1858. He died ten months later, on February 28, 1859, at the age of 60. Later, Dr. J. S. Helmcken described the Scotsman as “a character, genial, heavy, fat, with a twinkling humor.” (Daily Colonist, May 30, 1897, p. 7) It is often incorrectly claimed Brotchie brought the first potatoes to Victoria but James Douglas described the cultivation of potatoes by the area’s aboriginal people in 1842 (see Chapter One for details). It is likely Brotchie delivered a shipload of potatoes to Victoria, but potatoes were not new to the area.
Navigational aids 1865-1897
In 1865, a new marker--a pole positioned directly on the rocks--was installed on Brotchie Ledge. The Daily Colonist described the pole: “It consists of a long staff painted white, which is to be fixed in a hole bored in a large block of stone resting on top of the ledge.” The newspaper called the reef a “dangerous rock.” (Daily Colonist, February 6, 1865, p. 3) This pole was described in more detail two days later:
Capt. Pike is engaged in superintending the laying down of the new government beacon on Brotchie Ledge, which now presents a most conspicuous mark to the mariner. It consists of a fine cedar spar, 42 feet in length...and is painted white. It is firmly shackled to a block of stone... showing 20 feet above high water. The spar has been very well shaped and placed as it stands erect out of the water like a ship’s mast...” (Daily Colonist, February 8, 1865, p. 3)
Nine years later, in 1874, the reef was marked by a bell buoy. The Department of Marine and Fisheries (DMF) 1874 Annual Report stated: “A bell buoy was constructed and placed in position on Brotchy Ledge.” (7th Annual Report, p. xxiv) Bell buoys work because of wave action. As a buoy rolls in the sea, clappers (often four) hit the inside of a bell suspended in the superstructure. [Bell buoys are still in use today in Canada: “Any of the buoy types in the Canadian Buoyage System may be fitted with a bell or whistle that is activated by the motion of the buoy on the water.” (The Canadian Aids to Navigation System, Navigation Systems Branch, Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2001, Ottawa)]
A buoy was still in place when the San Pedro ran aground on Brotchie Ledge in 1891. During the six years the ship remained on the reef, the vessel itself was the navigational marker and a light was hung on the mast each night. Jacque Marc described the procedure: “Every night a watchman rowed out to hang a lighted lantern on her foremast. Every morning he went out and took it down again... (Marc, Jacques F. Historic Shipwrecks of Southern Vancouver Island. Underwater Archaeology society of British Columba, 1990, 37)
A reference in the Daily Colonist confirms the lantern continued to be hung on the San Pedro in 1897. After a March storm, the newspaper reported some of the wreck had disappeared, but “The forward mast still stands up as if the only resting place for the lantern man’s light.” (Daily Colonist, March 31, 1897, p. 2) [Due to long delays in getting the electric light to operate on the concrete beacon constructed in 1898, the same lantern system was used the first two years the beacon was in place. A man rowed out and hung the lantern on the new beacon instead of on the mast.]
A more conspicuous and permanent beacon was planned for Brotchie Ledge but it could not be constructed until the San Pedro wreck was removed from the site.
In 1891, the DMF Annual Report described the plan:
The agent has been instructed to build a large stone beacon on Brotchy Ledge, during low water springtides next season, and enquiries are being made as to the feasibility of lighting this beacon at night by means of incandescent lamps, connected through a submarine cable with the electric light plant in the City of Victoria. (24th Annual Report, 1891, p. 44)
There was no mention of this project in 1892. In 1893, the reason for the delay was explained:
Brotchy [sic] Ledge beacon. The masonry beacon erected on Brotchy Ledge has not yet been undertaken, as the ledge is still marked by the wreck of the steamer San Pedro. (DMF, 26th Annual Report, 1893, p. xxxv)
Removing the wreck proved extremely challenging and expensive. The story of the San Pedro wreck and recovery attempts is told in the last segment of this history.
Construction of the beacon began in 1897 after the hulk of the San Pedro was removed. The Daily Colonist described the plans in detail. The long-awaited new beacon would be “an electric light and either a fog horn or a bell, operated by electricity from shore.” It would stand on “a round column of rubble, sand and cement.” A diver would prepare a foundation of bags “filled with stone, sand and cement.” A fourteen-foot diameter iron caisson would be placed on that foundation. After filling the caisson with more stone, sand and cement, a second caisson would be placed on top “to bring the structure to the level of high tide.” Stones were transported from quarries on Salt Spring Island for the base. (Daily Colonist, August 10, 1897, p. 8)
Ten days later, the newspaper reported: “The big steel caisson for the Brotchie reef light foundation was successfully carried from the outer wharf and placed in position yesterday...The big mass of metal weighs 17 ½ tons..” Divers readied the foundation for 800 tons of concrete to be poured in. Work was expected to be completed in three weeks. (Daily Colonist, August 20, 1897, p. 5)
Plans were dashed on September 2 when “a heavy swell” lifted the huge caisson and toppled it into the sea. Chief Officer Owens of the steamer Quadra was supervising the building of the beacon. He said work must stop because of “bad weather” and resume in spring. (Daily Colonist, September 10, 1897, p. 3)
A week later, the delay was confirmed. The reason given was “unreliability of the winter weather.” The newspaper noted the steel caisson lay “damaged considerably...in deep water alongside the ledge,” but plans were to raise and transport it to the outer wharf for repair in the spring. (Daily Colonist, September 19, 1897, p. 2)
Work on the beacon was postponed until 1898. The DMF Annual Report stated: “Brotchy Ledge.--A beacon is in course of construction on the ledge.” (DMF 30th Annual Report, 1897, p. 52)
The first Brotchie Ledge beacon (1898-1989)
By the following summer, the fourteen-foot steel caisson previously knocked off the reef was declared a total loss. Captain Otto Buckholtz was awarded a contract to build the new beacon. He began by constructing a much larger and heavier thirty-foot diameter caisson so that it would not be “carried away by the action of the tides.” A total of “1800 tons of concrete” was to be used in its installation. The structure would stand twelve feet above high tide with an electric light on top and “Piping will conduct the electric wires up through the concrete...” (Daily Colonist, July 20, 1898, p 5)
The sturdy concrete beacon shown here was successfully completed in 1898 and remained on Brotchie Ledge for ninety-one years. (Canadian Coast Guard photo, undated, but taken before 1989)
The anticipated electric light was not operational from 1898 to 1900. During that period, an oil lamp dimly lit the site. Using the same procedure carried out for six years when the San Pedro wreck was on the rocks, a man rowed out each evening to hang an oil lantern on the beacon instead of the old ship’s mast.
Under the heading “Brotchy Ledge Lighted Beacon,” the 1898 Annual Report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries stated:
The iron and masonry substructure was successfully completed this season. The work was begun last year but was destroyed by the sea before completion. It is proposed to light these beacons electrically. The total expenditure to date on this aid, covering work done in two seasons, has been $10,468.93. The work was done by the crew of the Quadra. (DMF 31st Annual Report, 1898, page number obscured)
In February, 1899, the Daily Colonist noted, there was still no electric light operating on the reef. “Two years and more have now passed since the proposal was first made to place an electric beacon on Brotchie Ledge.” Completion was delayed because a new cable from England had not arrived. (Daily Colonist, February 16, 1899, p. 6)
In May, the Colonist reported: “Sir Louis Davies told Mr. McInnes that the light on Brotchie Ledge was not completed owing to a defective cable. The light will be in operation this year.” (Daily Colonist, May 2, 1899, p. 1) However, in November, the required “electrical apparatus” had still not arrived from England. (Daily Colonist, November 25, 1899, p. 8)
In February, 1900, a low maintenance, thirty-one day coal oil lamp was installed in the beacon. The Daily Colonist reported in March that the new oil lamp need not be “constantly attended by a keeper,” but that the light was not still not bright or dependable. “A light upon which absolute dependence cannot be placed will hardly meet the requirements at Brotchie Ledge, which is passed by so many vessels.” (Daily Colonist, March 10, 1900, p. 8)
In October, as work laying the electric cable to the beacon proceeded and a new electric light was close to installation, the newspaper described the situation in more detail:
At present, there is a coal oil lamp on the beacon, which when filled with oil burns day and night for thirty days...When the new electric light is in working order, it will give a much more brilliant light than at present, and mariners will watch the results with anticipation, for it is said by some of them that at present when fog settles down in that vicinity there is not a glimmer to be seen, and they ask that a fog bell be placed there. (Daily Colonist, October 26, 1900, p. 3)
The new lamp, made by the Albion Iron Works in Victoria, was a square of brass with four plate-glass windows. The lamp “will have a cluster of lights suspended from the top which will be so arranged that if any burn out others will immediately be illuminated.” A barge was to transport the lamp and the cable to the beacon. “The electricity is to be supplied by the tramway company.” (Daily Colonist, October 26, 1900, p. 3)
Finally, on November 1, the newspaper announced: “The electric light has been lit on Brotchie Ledge.” The headline was: “Brotchie Ledge Beacon Lit with the New Electric Lamp After Much Delay.” (Daily Colonist, November 1, 1900, p. 3) [The light was white until 1970, when it was changed to green.]
The DMF 1900 Annual Report printed an extremely detailed entry on the new light under the section “New Lights Established” and the heading “Brotchy Ledge Beacon Lighted”:
Brotchy Ledge Beacon, off the entrance to Victoria harbour, built in 1898, was made more conspicuous at night by showing from a square structure with sloping sides enclosed and painted white, standing eight feet above the deck of the beacon, a light, first established in February, 1900, as a white light occulted [hidden] at short intervals. It is elevated eighteen feet above high water mark. The illuminating apparatus was a pressed glass lens.
The lamp was a thirty-one day oil lamp, on the Wigham principle, which would burn without constant attendance. It was found that the automatic occulting apparatus, which was designed to be turned by the heat of the flame, did not revolve properly, and this was consequently removed and the light continued as a fixed white light until an electric cable, ordered from England, reached Victoria, in November, 1900. It was successfully laid by the crew of the Quadra in the same month, and a much more powerful fixed white light, consisting of five incandescent electric lights substituted for the oil light. In the event of temporary failure of the supply of electricity the oil light will be shown.
It is proposed, ultimately, to make the light on this beacon an occulting light and to establish an electric horn as a fog signal. (DMF 33rd Annual Report, 1900, p. 62)
The next year, 1901, the light was changed from fixed to occulted [hidden part of the time] and a working fog horn was installed:
Brotchy Ledge.--On March 19, 1901, the light shown from this beacon, at the entrance to Victoria harbour, was changed from fixed white to occulting white, visible for 40 seconds and eclipsed for 20 seconds, alternately. The light is shown from a group of incandescent electric lamps.
On the same date a fog horn, worked by the same electric current that operates the lamps, was established on the beacon. It stands in the enclosure below the light. In thick weather it will be sounded for 20 seconds, with silent intervals of 40 seconds, alternately, the horn sounding while the light is occulted and the horn being silent while the light is bright. On Sunday it will be impossible to sound the horn between sunrise and sunset owing to the electricity being shut off for overhauling purposes. (DMF 34rd Annual Report, 1901, p. 68)
Normal maintenance apparently continued without incident and no further entries were included in Annual Reports.
The Daily Colonist carried an unusual story about the beacon on July 1, 1904. A 500 pound steel elephant named Mite was stolen from a Victoria business and hung on the Brotchie beacon. At first, it was assumed it was placed on the beacon as an advertising gimmick. The business was notified by Captain Gaudin, agent of the Department of Marine and Fisheries, that it must remove its advertising from the beacon immediately or face legal action.
A surprised firm representative hurried to Dallas Road to behold Mite hanging on the beacon. The task of lifting the heavy elephant from the side of the slippery beacon and lowering it into a boat was a challenge. (Daily Colonist, July 1, 1904, p. 3) Two days later, the newspaper reported: “Visiting yachtsmen from Seattle expressed astonishment at the presence of such an object on an important piece of government property...” (Daily Colonist, July 3, 1904, p. 4)
The beacon made news again in January, 1905. According to the Daily Colonist, “Owing to the falling away of the bank on Dallas Road, it has been found necessary to move the Brotchie Ledge cable station.” The light could be discontinued “for a few nights whilst the work is under way.” (Daily Colonist, January 8, 1905, p. 5)
In June, 1905, the Daily Colonist reported plans to replace the “reed trumpet” audible fog signal with a “gong” operated by an electric motor:
Instead of the reed trumpet used at present at the Brotchie Ledge beacon during foggy weather, a gong is to be used. Messrs. T. G. Hinton and Co. Of this city have invented an electric motor which is to be used in operating the gong. The motor will be connected with a shore switch. Work on the machinery is now nearly completed and the change will soon be effected. (Daily Colonist, June 2, 1905, p. 8)
For the next 47 years, there was no mention of the beacon in Victoria newspapers.
In 1952, the Brotchie light was blamed for a motor vehicle accident. Police Constable Colli ran into a parked sawdust fuel truck on Dallas Road, totaling his car. He claimed he was blinded by the flashing Brotchie Ledge light when he looked seaward while driving west. After a check of the light, the opinion was given in court that the navigation light could not have blinded the officer, though someone on land with a flashlight could have. (Daily Colonist, December 11, 1952, p. 11)
In 1969, a note in Coast Guard files stated: “At present time the Brotchie Ledge horn is controlled by the Pilotage Office on Dallas Road.” (L. E. Slaght, November 3, 1969, Canadian Coast Guard, Pacific Region, Victoria)
In 1970, 72 years after it was constructed, three major changes were made on the Brotchie Ledge beacon. The light’s colour was changed from white to green, the beacon was equipped with an automatic fog detector, and, surprisingly, a windmill was installed on the beacon to power the light and horn.
A month before the changes, a letter from I. M. Campbell, District Engineer to the Superintendent of Lights reveals some irritation about prior consultation on the changes:
Your memo indicates you don’t recall our discussion re placement of the cable to Brotchie Ledge by a wind charger, replacement of the air horn by an electronic one and replacement of the present light by a battery operated one. Possibly you remember one of us remarking at the time that Brotchie Light was the wrong colour... (Coast Guard files)
In October, 1970, the Victoria Daily Times reported a windmill was being installed to power the horn and light on Brotchie Ledge. “Up until now, a submarine cable has been used to transfer power from shore to the beacon. Over the years, the cable has deteriorated.” Windmills were ordered from Australian for installation at several points on the west coast. The windmill would charge a bank of batteries. “The Brotchie Ledge light will also be equipped with an electronic fog detector that will automatically trigger the horn.” (Victoria Daily Times, October 8, 1970, p. 40)
A Coast Guard “Aids to Navigation” report dated October 20, 1970, described Brotchie Ledge, Light #205:
Elevation above high water 20 feet. Black steel sheathed conical base, white cylindrical tower with black band at top. Lantern at top. Radar reflector. Fog horn Blast 2 sec. Silent 18 sec. (Victoria Harbour-Brotchie Ledge, 8010-1950-205, Vol. 1, October 20, 1970, Canadian Coast Guard, Victoria)
The black band at the top of the old beacon mentioned in this report can be seen in the photo above. Sometime before 1989, that black band was changed to green.
A further report that month gave more specific details on Brotchie Ledge, Light #205. It was equipped with an electronic horn which blasted 1.2 seconds and was silent 18 seconds, alternately. There were six storage batteries and a Dunlite Windrive Power Plant, 800 watts, 12 volt, Serial 18145. The type of installation was Fog Detector Videograph. The light was green with the sequence: 3 second light, 9.7 dark, operating off a 12 volt battery powered by the windmill. (Victoria Harbour-Brotchie Ledge, 8010-1950-205, Vol. 1, October 26, 1970, Coast Guard files)
Further changes were noted on October 28, 1970:
BL LL 205 has been changed to fixed green with a high intensity green flash superimposed every 10 seconds or 6 flashes per minute. The character of the fog alarm has been permanently changed to blast 2 sec. Silence 18 sec.
A fog signal change was recorded in December for “Brotchie Ledge Light (48 degrees 24' 24" N, 123 degrees, 23' 11.5" W)”: The fog signal was replaced by a “Fog Horn 20 sec.” (Victoria Harbour-Brotchie Ledge, Dec. 11, 1970, Coast Guard files)
A boat cruising guide noted the beacon was run by a “conspicuous windmill” in 1976:
Brotchie Ledge is now marked by its own beacon with a flashing green light powered by a conspicuous windmill generator. (Bill Wolferstan, Pacific Yachting’s Cruising Guide to the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island from Sooke to Courtnay, Pacific Yachting, Interpress Publications, Vancouver, 1976, p. 94)
A new electronic fog detector installed in March, 1981 was malfunctioning by December, to the displeasure of neighbours. The detector was set to be triggered by moisture in the air, usually the result of fog. The horn sounded frequently with no fog visible. Capt. Bill Exley, Transport Canada’s superintendent of lights, told the newspaper that many callers “look out and can see the lights of Port Angeles and the darn thing’s going. It’s quite a penetrating noise.” Exley’s department found equipment to do the job manually and planned to install it at the Victoria pilot station on Dallas Road where it would be operated by a radio link. Because many boaters in the area relied on the Brotchie Ledge horn, Exley did not want to switch off the electronic detector until the replacement was operating. He apologized and said the new system would be installed in two or three weeks. (Times Colonist, December 9, 1981, p. 27)
The second Brotchie Ledge beacon (1989-2005)
The beacon constructed in 1898 lasted ninety-one years. By 1989, wave action had undermined its base and a new beacon was scheduled to replace it. Canadian Coast Guard spokesman Capt. Cliff Crow told the Times Colonist the new beacon would be “a lot larger” and would “last 100 years.” Concrete was poured on the southwest part of the ledge in August. According to the Times Colonist, a fibreglass tower would be placed on top along with a new power cable and control circuit for the light. The structure, light and foghorn would cost $300,000. (Times Colonist, August 18, 1989)
The above photo shows the old and new beacons standing side by side just before the shorter one was dismantled on October 5, 1989. (Photo courtesy of Coast Guard)
Several Coast Guard advisories were issued to mariners during construction of the new beacon. The notice to ships, dated September 26, 1989, stated:
The new tower for BL LL 205 has now been erected. Until further notice, the light will be exhibited from the old beacon. As the new tower is approximately 14 feet higher than the old tower, the light may be obscured from seaward.” (Canadian Coast Guard files)
By September 29, 1989, a new light was operating from the new beacon. The structure was described in a Coast Guard notice to ships as “a new white tower with a green band around the top. New height above high water is 9.4 metres.”
On October 5, 1989, C.K.S. Construction Tug and Barge Company tore down the old beacon. (Canadian Coast Guard files)
Complaints began pouring in from James Bay residents about the loud new foghorn. An answering letter from the Coast Guard, dated October 19, 1989, stated a change was being made which would “hopefully baffle the noise to the shoreside of the structure.”
Complaints about “penetrating” noise continued. One resident’s letter, dated August 27, 1990, described a “very high pitch of fog horn,” though the signal was reported to be operating properly when it was checked August 8. On December 19, 1996, a Coast Guard note stated: “Will discontinue fog signal LL 205. Light will remain.” (Coast Guard files)
On April 8, 1997, records show the fog horn was “permanently discontinued." (Coast Guard files)
A September, 2005 maintenance record indicates the green light is powered by two 48 W solar panels, with 6 S-2000 batteries. The beacon has two flasher type bulbs and a sunswitch. The elevation to the top of the structure is 12.4 metres. The elevation of the lights is 12.0 metres. (September 5, 2000, Coast Guard files)
In June, 2005, Canadian Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Program Superintendent Terry Webber confirmed the only changes made since 1989 were “solarizing” [the light is powered by two solar panels] and discontinuing the foghorn. The cylindrical fiberglass tower remains white with a green band at the top and the green light flashes once every four seconds. (Telephone conversation June 3, 2005)
In addition to warning ships and boats off the rocks, the beacon serves as a prominent geographical reference point for pilots and scuba divers, fishermen, and government agencies. Brotchie Ledge is listed as a Pilot Boarding Station for ships entering the compulsory pilotage area. Diving websites and information suggest diving Brotchie Ledge to see old bottles and remains of the San Pedro shipwreck.
Fishing websites and articles claim Brotchie Ledge is a “hotspot.” Fish are said to skirt the sides of the reef and come close to the surface making the area one of the favorite fishing spots around Victoria. Fisheries and Oceans Canada uses the Brotchie Ledge Light as a reference in explaining regulations affecting fishermen and divers. For example, their website states: “Those waters inside a line from the navigation light at the western end of the Ogden Point Causeway thence to Brotchie Ledge Light, thence to Holland Point on Vancouver Island...”
Victoria Harbour Bird Sanctuary boundaries are marked on maps with a straight line drawn from Staines Point on Trial Island to Brotchie Ledge, then from Brotchie Ledge to Macaulay Point.
Wreck of the San Pedro
A spectacular wreck occurred on Sunday evening, Nov. 22, 1891, when the San Pedro ran onto Brotchie Ledge. The ship, called ”the finest collier on the Pacific Coast,” had loaded 4,000 tons of coal in Comox and was on the way to San Francisco on a calm night with an experienced pilot. (Daily Colonist, Nov. 24, 1891, p. 5)
Both Captain C. H. Hewitt and pilot Capt. James Christensen, Sr. were on the bridge looking for the Brotchie Ledge buoy at the time. They planned to stop at the entrance of Victoria harbour to drop off the pilot.
At 8:30 p.m., the San Pedro struck Brotchie Ledge, glanced off, struck again and stopped. Engines full astern had no effect and the tide was falling fast. Her whistle blew a distress call and two tugs reached the ship about 11 p.m. By then, the stern was low and the bow hard on sharp rocks. (Rogers, Fred. Shipwrecks of British Columbia, J. J. Douglas Ltd., Vancouver, 1973, p. 91)
In an effort to refloat the ship, about 300 tons of coal was thrown over the side during the night with the help of 20 longshoremen, but the ship remained grounded. By 3:30 a.m. Monday, the ship was at a steep 45 degree angle and she did not rise on the incoming tide. Divers examined the hull at daylight and found holes about 30 feet long in the hull. (Rogers, p. 92) Sightseers crowded the shore on Monday and approached the ship in small boats. (Daily Colonist, Nov. 24, 1891, p. 5)
On Tuesday morning, the ship suddenly lurched, filled and settled, “leaving only the wheelhouse and foredeck above water.” Men working on board shouted and jumped into the water. Some were carried away by the current and had to be rescued by small boats. (Rogers, p. 92) Only the bow, smokestack and masts were visible. (Daily Colonist, Nov. 24, 1891, p. 5)
Lewis and Dryden wrote: “At 9:30...the steamer suddenly sank in about eight and one-half fathoms astern and four and one-half abreast.” (Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. Edited by E. W. Wright. Antiquarian Press, Ltd. New York, 1961, p. 393 p. 393)
The San Pedro was a large iron steamship built in Philadelphia. According to Rogers, the ship was valued at $400,000 and “She was registered 3,110 tons, 331.5 foot length, 42.2 foot beam and 19.5 foot hold.” (Rogers, p. 92)
In an affidavit presented to the commission of enquiry, Captain Hewitt stated the San Pedro was registered at 2,113 tons with a 25 foot draft. (Daily Colonist, January 23, 1892, p. 5) The commission’s report stated the value of the steamship was $300,000. (Daily Colonist, January 27, 1892, p. 3)
The San Pedro was owned by the Southern Pacific Steamship Company, a division of Southern Pacific Railroad. The ship was not insured. The owners believed until 1894 that the ship could be refloated. Three years and a great deal of money was spent trying to salvage the ship. According to Lewis and Dryden, the San Pedro disaster “proved more costly to the wreckers than any other in the Northwest...T.P.H. Whitelaw of San Francisco spent nearly one hundred thousand dollars...” (Lewis & Dryden, p. 393)
Blame for the wreck assigned by commission
A commission of enquiry was held into the San Pedro disaster. Captain Lewis, Captain Gaudin and Mr. Robert Ward submitted their report to the Minister of Marine and it was publicized January 23, 1892. They concluded the loss of the steamer was due to “gross neglect of the pilot in not taking proper bearings by Fisguard [sic] Island light [which was visible at the time] and keeping the ship on that course.” The pilot should also have verified his position after Clover Point and observed the tide. The pilot had already been suspended for three months by the pilot commissioners.
Secondly, the commission faulted “the want of promptitude on the part of the pilot and the master, who were both on the bridge at the time, in not stopping and reversing the engines when the lookout reported seeing something ahead [the lookout rang three bells]...”
The commission concluded: “With proper care by the person in charge and existing aids to navigation, we do not consider the entrance to Victoria harbour dangerous.” However, they included a strong statement condemning the “system of pilotage that compels vessels to deviate from their course to take up or to land a pilot.” They suggested a pilot boat suitable for any weather be available in Victoria.
Captain Hewitt said he had hoped the court would completely exonerate him because he was not in charge of the San Pedro at the time of the wreck. He had placed confidence in the pilot and thought he should not interfere. The pilot filed an affidavit agreeing with Hewitt. (Daily Colonist, January 23, 1892, p. 5)
A special meeting of the Council of the Board of Trade was held on January 26 to consider the report, particularly specific recommendations to improve pilotage services so ships would not have to navigate close to shore. (Daily Colonist, January 27, 1892, p. 3)
1891-1892 efforts to refloat the San Pedro
Captain T.P.H. Whitelaw was hired by the ship’s owners to salvage the vessel. Whitelaw, a “well known wrecker,” came to Victoria from San Francisco. Whitelaw’s plan was to use multiple pontoons to raise the vessel. The pontoons were constructed at Victoria’s outer wharf the end of 1891 in preparation to refloat the ship. In January, 1892, the Daily Colonist reported on Whitelaw’s progress:
The pontoons built at the outer wharf have been placed in position...The full number will be put down before they are inflated and it is hoped that the San Pedro will be brought to the surface. For several days past a large gang of men have been engaged in clearing the holds, so as to lighten the vessel. Several hundred tons of coal have been removed, and from the examination of the machinery, it appears that it has suffered little, except from water. (Daily Colonist, January 10, 1892, p. 5)
Captain Whitelaw was confident of success when he talked with a Daily Colonist reporter on January 25, 1892:
Within ten days, you will see the San Pedro above water again, just as good, barring the damage she sustained in striking, as when she went down. I have not the slightest doubt of the success of my line of action....The San Pedro lies right on top of the ledge, with one rock penetrating her bottom for a distance of five feet, and another that is three feet in. Some days ago, we put in a series of wooden cribs under her keel, at distances of twelve feet from one another....We use air for our purposes and not pumps. We are placing twelve pontoons on each side of the vessel, six large ones and eighteen smaller...(Daily Colonist, January 26, 1892, p. 5)
Whitelaw explained each pair of pontoons worked separately, so extra pressure could be applied to certain sections of the wreck as needed. After ship was lifted, which he estimated would take four hours, it would take about a half hour to tow the ship to the Dallas Road beach. Wages paid out each week in the operation were $3,000. (Daily Colonist, January 26, 1892, p. 5)
In April, the pontoons had still not been deployed and the San Pedro remained on Brotchie Ledge. Captain Bryan, a representative of Southern Pacific, visited Victoria from San Francisco. He told the Daily Colonist: “Our company is well satisfied to go on as we have been doing, and to test this pontoon scheme of Captain Whitelaw’s to success or failure.” Bryan added:
During the past winter she has been right in the centre of at least eight big gales...and has not suffered..I am confident that within three weeks...we shall have all the pontoons about her and I give Captain Whitelaw another ten days after that to have the steamer high and dry on the beach. (Daily Colonist, April 20, 1892, p. 1)
Spectators lined Dallas Road on June 23 to view the long-awaited raising of the San Pedro. “Those who went out to see it were doomed to bitter disappointment,” the Daily Colonist reported the following day. The “heroic efforts” of gangs of men on board Spratt’s Ark, the Capilano, the Sadie and the tug Lorne were to no avail. “No one disputes the ability of the genial captain from San Francisco to do the work and few have any doubts that it will finally be accomplished.” (Daily Colonist, June 24, 1892, p. 8) The caption printed under this undated photo of the San Pedro on Brotchie Ledge was “Spratts Ark performing salvage.”
Another great effort by Captain Whitelaw to raise the steamer came in August. The plan was succinctly summarized in the Daily Colonist: “Boiled down to a bare theory, the idea was to arrange the pontoons, tenders, tugs, wreckers, etc. so that their lifting power would be greater than the dead weight of the steamer.” Again, the ship did not budge.
The Daily Colonist announced the failure with three headlines: “PROBABLY ABANDONED;” “Latest and Greatest Attempt to Raise the San Pedro Meets With Poor Success;” and “The Next Move Awaited With Interest--A Simple Problem to be Worked Out.”
The article described “tugs and tenders and wreckers” making maximum efforts and motors sending “heavy clouds of black smoke heavenward.” Afterward, however, “Everything was the same...as the night before...” The paper predicted the ship would be abandoned and scrapped. (Daily Colonist, August 5, 1892, p. 6)
A confusing report appeared in the Daily Colonist later that month. According to the newspaper, Captain Whitelaw attempted to turn the effort over to the Merritt Wrecking Company of New York and a representative of Merritt, Captain J. N. Lachlan, arrived in Victoria to meet with Whitelaw August 17. Lachlan was to survey the wreck and decide if Merritt would take over the attempt to beach and repair the ship. If he took over, it was assumed Lachlan would use Whitelaw’s cribbing and pontoons, add extra bouyancy and try floating the ship again. (Daily Colonist, August 18, 1892, p. 8) It seems likely the newspaper got some facts wrong. The next year, Lachlan was identified as an employee of Southern Pacific, not Merritt, and it was said he was the original builder of the San Pedro.
After inspecting the wreck, Captain Lachlan left Victoria and Captain Whitelaw continued salvage work, restating: “The only way to succeed is to put in a false deck to give greater bouyancy, and then she will come up.” Captain Whitelaw estimated three or four weeks more work. (Daily Colonist, August 23, 1892, p. 7)
When those efforts were unsuccessful, Whitelaw left Victoria.
1893-1894 efforts to refloat San Pedro
In 1893, Captain J. M. Lachlan came to Victoria to take on the job of raising the San Pedro. Lachlan began work in February, 1893. He was identified by the Daily Colonist as “an officer in the Marine Department of the Southern Pacific Company,” which owned the San Pedro, “not, as many suppose, a ‘wrecker’ whose business it is to raise ships.” He was sent to Victoria by the President of Southern Pacific after Capt. Whitelaw’s efforts proved “fruitless.” The newspaper claimed Lachlan built the San Pedro and other vessels for Southern Pacific and he came armed with the ships plans.
In an interview, Lachlan said he started work in Victoria on February 13, 1893. His first step was directing three men to shovel snow off the outer wharf. “Active operations on the wreck” began on March 16. By then, “the upper deck had fallen in and the vessel was much injured...” (Daily Colonist, August 22, 1893, p. 8)
Lachlan’s initial attempt to raise the ship was made the first week of August. Just as the ship lifted “a little,” pumps broke down. The second week of August, another attempt to raise her was made with 23 pumps operating for 14 hours straight. In addition, many ships were on hand and two tugs. When the largest tug used maximum force to pull the wreck, the new rope--nineteen inches in circumference--snapped “like a piece of twine but the Pedro did not even tremble.” Lachlan recognized the ship was more damaged than previously thought. Holes 65 feet long prevented her from ever being pumped dry. Lachlan was confident his method would have worked “if she had not been damaged so much by previous efforts.” Lachlan admitted defeat.
The newspaper concluded: “The San Pedro Can Only Be Taken Off Brotchie Ledge in Pieces.”(Daily Colonist, August 22, 1893, p. 8)
It didn’t take long, however, for a new company, the Moran Brothers of Seattle, to attempt raising the wreck. After surveying the ship, Moran started work in October under contract with the Southern Pacific Steamship Company. Moran would execute the same plan as Capt. Lachlan but use more powerful pumps. They had on hand the tug Rainier and the large specially-equipped steam barge Henry Buck. After repairing the coffers, the company said it would be ready to raise the ship in two weeks. (Daily Colonist, October 19, 1893, p. 7) Two unsuccessful tries were made in November. (Daily Colonist, November 18, 1893, p. 3)
Moran tried again in 1894, but storms destroyed their equipment and the San Pedro’s stern disappeared. It was clear at last the ship could never be raised. It would be taken apart for scrap. Lewis & Dryden summarized these events:
The last attempt was made in 1894, by Moran Brothers of Seattle, who, with the aid of a number of immense pumps, succeeded in securing a very good start; but, before their operations were completed, a heavy sea destroyed the advantage they had gained, and before they could get their plant again in working order, a second storm swept away a large share of their gear and a portion of the stern of the steamer, leaving her a hopeless wreck. The bow and foremast of the vessel were still in plain view early in 1895, and the Victorians, to whom the unfortunate craft had proved an eyesore, were endeavoring to have the Dominion Government remove it with dynamite. (p. 393)
Captain Whitelaw removes wreck in pieces (1897)
The San Pedro was to be removed in pieces and the man called upon to do it was Captain T. P. H. Whitelaw. In September, 1896, The Daily Colonist printed a dispatch from San Francisco announcing Captain Whitelaw would return to dismantle the wreck. The dispatch stated though three attempts had been made to raise her and a good deal of money expended:
The steamer lies as she did when she struck--a constant menace to navigation and a source of considerable annoyance to the authorities. Captain Whitelaw, who has obtained a contract for the total removal of the wreck, will leave for the scene with his new wrecker early next week. He has undertaken to complete the task within sixty days...” (Daily Colonist, September 25, 1896, p. 8)
It appears Whitelaw’s arrival in Victoria was delayed. The Daily Colonist reported in February, 1897, a letter had been received from Whitelaw asking for permission to bring in his “wrecking outfit” to begin work in March. He was described once again as “the well known wrecker of San Francisco.” (Daily Colonist, February 13, 1897, p. 8) He was delayed again.
A severe storm in March, 1897, caused a dramatic change in the San Pedro. Though the wreck had “withstood every gale heretofore for years,” the Daily Colonist reported, at last the “prow which every photographer in town has a picture of” broke off and disappeared. “The forward mast still stands up as if the only resting place for the lantern man’s light. At high tide, very little of the wreck can now be seen...” (Daily Colonist, March 31, 1897, p. 2)
In May, Captain T. P. H. Whitelaw “and the famous wrecking steamer to which has been given his name” finally arrived in Victoria to begin removal of the wreck. The Daily Colonist reported he expected to have all debris removed from Brotchie Ledge in three or four months. He ascertained no part of the wreck was carried away, but had “merely sagged amidships” in the March storm. Whitelaw planned to use dynamite and remove the wreck in sections “as large as the derricks can lift.” The iron recovered would repay costs. (Daily Colonist, May 8, 1897, p. 7)
“The hull is being blown up,” the newspaper reported on May 16. One explosion “threw a column of water fifty feet or more in the air and of a diameter equal to the whole length of the visible portion of the wreck.” (Daily Colonist, May 16, 1897, p. 5)
Dynamiting the most visible section of the San Pedro wreck was planned to take place during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign was the occasion of elaborate celebrations by British subjects around the world. In Victoria, a thanksgiving service was planned on Sunday, June 20, followed by a “three day carnival” in honour of the Queen from Monday, June 21 through Wednesday, June 23. (Daily Colonist, May 5, 1897, p. 1) Monday celebrations would begin with the “9 a.m. Destruction of the old San Pedro.” (Daily Colonist, June 20, 1897, p. 5)
The Daily Colonist described the event:
Captain Whitelaw’s grand spectacular effect in connection with the San Pedro’s demolition came off strictly as per contract yesterday in the view of the many people gathered for the lacrosse match. The explosion was a very pretty one, a column of water being sent quite a hundred feet in the air, but those who looked for the obliteration of all traces of the Pedro were again disappointed. The landmark still remains and will still give the wreckers profitable occupation. (Daily Colonist, June 22, 1897, p. 7)
Whitelaw’s team completed removal of the wreck at last, clearing the way for work to begin on the long-awaited new concrete Brotchie ledge beacon in August, 1897. (See previous section)
In recent decades, countless scuba divers have explored the remnants of the San Pedro on the ocean floor. In 1962, diver Fred Rogers reported: “The wreck had been well worked over for many years by scuba divers exploring the reef for souvenirs and spearfishing for cod lurking under the iron.” (Rogers, Fred, p. 93)
Several decades later, Jacques Marc drew a site survey map, dated January 1989, after diving on Brotchie Ledge. He described what remained of the ship:
She lies northeast of the new Brotchie Ledge beacon in 10-20 metres of water. The longitude and latitude coordinates are 123 degrees 23' 12" West and 45 degrees 24' 25" North...a large part of the San Pedro remains firmly fastened to Brotchie Ledge. In fact, some 90 metres of the hull, including the keel and floors, lie on a 273 degree heading across the reef...The bow of the wreck lies in shallow water on top of the reef...The whole affair is covered with plumose anemones and bull kelp, providing a very picturesque dive site. (Marc, p. 38)
Marc located “a huge brass valve most likely from the engine room.” He described old bottles at the site:
Victoria formerly dumped garbage at Brotchie Ledge. As a result, the south side of this reef is littered with old bottles and ceramic ware from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today this site is a favourite haunt for bottle collectors. (Marc, p. 38)
The City of Victoria dumped garbage into the ocean off Brotchie Ledge longer than Marc realized. For fifty years, from 1908 to 1958, city garbage was dumped from scows towed a short distance into the Strait by tugs. (See Clover Point History section for a full discussion). The bottles continue to be of interest to scuba divers in 2005 and are still mentioned on diving websites.
In 1986, a brass plaque on granite was erected on Dallas Road at the end of Lewis Street by the Thermopylae Club to commemorate the San Pedro wreck.