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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
workers struggled with the construction project through the spring
summer and fall of 1860.
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
of tower and dwelling house
section thro' tower
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.
made all possible sail, but to no avail."
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.
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.
Nanette is the vessel on the far right hand edge of the
BC Archives Image P0P05442
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.
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
The SS Nichola Biddle sank
January 5, 1867
The Swordfish, November 6
The SS Rosedale on
December 12, 1882
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.
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.
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.
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