Race Rocks Lighthouse

Race Rocks Lighthouse
Race Rocks Lighthouse

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: “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.

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.

In 1892 the Department of Marine and Fisheries installed a steam plant and two compressed air foghorns at Race Rocks. The Department had taken over operation of lighthouses from the British Admiralty in 1871 when British Columbia joined the Dominion of Canada. Despite the addition of the powerful horns tragedies continued at Race Rocks.

· In 1896 the SS Tees crashed ashore

· Followed by the Prince Victor in January 1901.

The worst disaster occurred on the dark night of March 24, 1911. The ferry Sechelt , bound for Sooke from Victoria found herself fighting a fierce westerly gale as she headed out the strait past Race Rocks. The captain decided against bucking the gale past Beechy Head and made the decision to make a fateful change of course to return his ship to the shelter of Victoria harbour. Caught in a beam sea the Sechelt capsized and sank rapidly taking her crew and 50 passengers with her to the bottom of Race Passage.

Over the years complaints about the horns persisted. The light keepers and their assistants worked diligently to maintain and operate the horns but many complaints were filed reporting that the horns were not always being sounded in foggy conditions. In July of 1923 the liner Siberian Prince went aground within a mile of the lighthouse without ever hearing the horn. On November 2, 1925 the Holland Amerika liner Eemdijk also ran aground in almost the same location. Again the ship’s crew reported they did not hear the foghorns from nearby Race Rocks. The tug Hope was lost with her crew of seven while attempting to salvage the Eemdijk . In 1927 Race Rocks was the first station on Canada’s West Coast to be fitted with a radio beacon. This did a great deal to prevent further tragedy.

The issue of the reliability of the light keepers and the operation of the horns at Race Rocks was finally resolved in May 1929 when the Hydrographical Survey ship Lilloet conducted an investigation of the so called silent zone the keepers and various ships masters had always claimed existed. The Lilloet expedition proved that an unusual deflection of the sound as a result of the location of the horns was in fact a serious problem. The horns were then moved to a separate tower and for the first time were truly useful.

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.

Race Rocks, 1875

In 1867 Thomas Argyle was appointed as Chief Keeper of Race Rocks Light at an annual salary of $630. His wife Ellen was retained as matron at $150 and two assistant keepers were hired at a salary of $390 each for the year. Supplying the station was always difficult as it involved rowing out from Victoria but at least the Admiralty paid up to $900 a year for supplies. The employment conditions for the keeper of Race Rocks were relatively good at this time compared to the situation after 1871 when the new Dominion Government took over the lights. Argyle’s annual salary was then cut to a paltry $125 and he was expected to pay for his own assistants and all supplies. Argyle apparently took to the sea to supplement his food supplies. His family had grown considerably as six children were born to the Argyles at Race Rocks. He was known to dive into the frigid waters around the station in search of abalone, scallops and mussels.

It seems that Thomas Argyle’s luck suddenly changed in about 1885. The Colonist newspaper reported that he was paying for his weekly supplies in Victoria with gold sovereigns. When Thomas died thirty years later at the age of eighty he had still not exhausted his apparently endless supply of gold coins. It would appear that Thomas Argyle’s diving expeditions had resulted in the discovery of sunken treasure. “The sea provides!” Argyle served at Race Rocks for twenty-one years and retired in 1888. One son was drowned at age 19 when returning from Victoria with a friend. Another son Albert took over as temporary keeper until a new appointment was made on January 1, 1889. According to descendants of Argyle they would not allow him to stay on as keeper because he was not married.

Race Rocks, 1905
Race Rocks, 1905

Appointments to government jobs were always closely linked with political patronage. The appointment of W.P. Daykin who came from Sand Head station was clearly influenced in this way. Daykin served for three years before moving on to Carmanah Light Station on the outside coast. Frederick Eastwood, his wife and three children moved to Race Rocks in April 1891. When Eastwood hired two Japanese assistants the discriminatory attitudes of the times befell him. He was charged with dereliction of duty when the local MP Colonel Edward G. Prior wrote to the Minister in the fall of 1900 stating that “for a long time past this lighthouse has been in the charge of two Japanese instead of a white man”. The Minister Louis Davies replied that “The Department was not desirous to encourage in any way the employment of these men. White men should have the preference.” Eastwood served until he retired in 1919.

A second keeper was lost in a tragedy on January 23 1950. Arthur Anderson left his wife and two children to obtain supplies ashore and never returned. His skiff turned up empty along the American shore near Port Angeles. Anderson was never found.

Race Rocks, 1915
Race Rocks, 1915



Source: Lester Pearson College
Photos courtesy BC Archives