Race Rock Lighthouse
1875

 

 

     On Boxing Day 1860 the magnificent Imperial Light on the treacherous Race Rocks Islets was lit for the first time.  Since then, without interruption, a succession of dedicated light keepers have tended the light as a vital aid to navigation for ships transiting the Strait of Juan de Fuca bound for the ports of Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle and the inside passage.

     The urgent need for a light on Race Rocks had become obvious to the British Admiralty in the early 1850's.  The new American light at Cape Flattery marked the southern shore of the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The great tall ships of the mid 1800's made the turn to starboard and found themselves in the darkened strait with the added complications of navigating an inland waterway with variable winds and extremely challenging tidal conditions.  The name Race Rocks refers to the tide race, which swirls past the rocky outcrops at speeds of up to 8 knots.

     Located just over one nautical mile from Rocky Point, the southern most point on Vancouver Island, Race Rocks is the most southerly part of Canada on the Pacific Coast.  The extraordinary tidal flow, one of the strongest on the coast, is not surprising when one considers that the entire flow of a one or two fathom tidal change for all of Georgia Strait, Haro Strait, and Puget Sound rushes past Race Rocks twice each day.  At the narrowest point in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with only 12 nautical miles separating it from the American shore, Race Rocks is swept not only by the strong tides but also the surging waves of the Pacific.

     Victoria in the 1850's was emerging as an important economic centre.  The booming timber business and excellent harbours at both Victoria and Esquimalt resulted in a significant increase in shipping.  Captain George Richards aboard the vessel Plumper was surveying the coast for the British Admiralty in London.  In his letter to the Admiralty that accompanied Captain Richards' report, Rear-Admiral Robert Baynes wrote: "a great want which is felt by all vessels coming to Vancouver's Island of a light on the North shore on the Race Islands or Rocks."  Baynes wrote that it was "almost impossible after dark" to make Victoria Harbour "as the entrance [is] so difficult to distinguish."  The decision to construct the Admiralty's first lights on the West Coast at Fisgard at the entrance to Esquimalt harbour and at Race Rocks was soon made.

   The construction of the Race Rocks lighthouse was a remarkable undertaking.  The Admiralty selected Scottish granite that was cut and numbered in Scotland and then shipped as ballast in an outbound timber ship for assembly at Race Rocks.  Throughout the summer of 1860 the massive stones were barged from the harbour to the Race and assembled using timber derricks and scaffolding.  The workers struggled with the construction project through the spring summer and fall of 1860.

   Three days before the new light was lit, tragedy struck.  If there was ever any doubt about the need for the lighthouse structure the loss of the 385-ton tall ship Nanette proved it.  Without the warning the new light was to provide only three days later, the Nanette ran hard aground on Race Rocks and was a total loss.

     The Nanette's mate William McCullogh wrote in the ship's log:

Elevation of tower and dwelling house Vertical section thro' tower
Race Rocks Lighthouse
1860
by G.D. Kennell

"At 8 o'clock saw a light bearing N by W [this must have been the new light at Fisgard lit only two months earlier] Could not find the light marked on the chart.  At 8 1/2 o'clock it cleared somewhat, and then saw the point of Race Rocks the first time, but no light.  Called all hands on deck, as we found the ship was in a counter current, and drifting at a rate of 7 knots toward the shore.  We made all possible sail, but to no avail."

     With the assistance of the construction gang the crew of the Nanette found shelter although the lightstation boat was also lost.  HMS Grappler was able to rescue the crew from Race Rocks the next day.  The cargo of the Nanette, valued at over $160,000 was strewn across the rocks surrounding the stricken hull.  This prize attracted many eager locals hoping to salvage what they could.  One overly ambitious crew perished when their over loaded canoe capsized off Albert Head tossing five men, a woman, and her 18 month old baby into the sea.

The Nanette is the vessel on the far right hand edge of the sketch.

Nanette 1860
BC Archives Image P0P05442

     Soon after the light went into service in 1860 it became obvious that the tower was difficult to see by day when approaching from the west.  Distinctive black and white stripes were painted on the tower by the first light keeper George Davies to improve it's visibility against the shoreline.  These markings remain today maintaining Race Rock's unique appearance.  Although the light was a great improvement on clear nights when it was visible for 18 miles the hazards of Race Rocks were still very real in fog.

     The islets are shrouded in fog for up to 45 days a year.  With only the station bell for a keeper to sound in the fog, the Race continued to be the final resting place of the ships of unsuspecting crews drawn to the reefs by the relentless tiderips.

  • The SS Nichola Biddle sank January 5, 1867

  • The Swordfish, November 6 1877

  • The SS Rosedale on December 12, 1882

  • The Barnard Castle, a coal freighter en route from Nanaimo to San Francisco struck Rosedale Rocks on November 2, 1886, but made it to nearby Bentinck Island, where it now lies.

     Light keepers of the coast were the heroes of the new frontier and the burgeoning coastal communities.  Their living conditions were extremely difficult.  The original stone house at the base of the light tower at Race Rock was very drafty and damp.  In southeast gales the rain penetrated the cement joints in the structure.  At some stations the keepers claimed the curtains flapped in a good gale!  The first keeper's time at the Race was a very unfortunate one.  George Davies and his wife Rosina eagerly awaited the visit of her brother, sister-in-law and three friends on Christmas Day 1865.  As the skiff approached with the Davies family watching and waving from the station, a tide rip only 20 feet from the jetty swept the small boat away, capsizing it and dumping the shocked passengers and their Christmas gifts into the water.  The station had no boat at this time and each of the unfortunate visitors perished.  The new year was no better for the Davies family.  During the winter of 1866 George became seriously ill.  The Union Jack flew at half-mast at the station as a signal of distress for nine days but to no avail.  George Davies died at the Race shortly before Christmas 1866.  In 1867 Thomas Argyle takes over as Chief Keeper.