Tuesday, January 23rd, 1906
If Joe was told the sea was not vengeful, did not take pleasure in, did not revel in, the murder of helpless souls, he wouldn’t believe it; for the sea at that moment was a howling rage, purposely dragging him from the rocks at Pachena Point, plunging him beneath the surging tide. He once again came to the surface, coughing, eschewing seawater, his bare feet scrambling on the slimed green ledge beneath the swell, fighting to gain a foothold.
His head now barely above water, he gasped for breath in the freezing rain, the crashing surf having its way, keeping him from the relative safety of the shore, a shore barely ten feet in front of him. No, he wouldn’t believe the sea was not evil, but was a devil’s betrayal, an abominable perfidy to the more than one hundred passengers still on the SS Valencia, desperately clinging to the remains of the upper hurricane deck, hanging onto rat lines, tying themselves down, lashing themselves with rope, or whatever means were available, scarves, clothing, to withstand the next pounding fist of a wave, cast at them by a sea whose sole mission seemed prying them off into oblivion.
The January rain, now almost ten hours since the breech, flailed upon the shrieking ship, an agony of a dying thing, discarding to the wind and the waves appendages of itself: chunks of galvanized steel, the now broken bridge, pieces of charthouse, the salon deck, the lower and main; all in turn stripped away like steeled skin from a noble beast, until, at last, the passengers and crew themselves would be thrown to the turmoil.
The rope line tied to Joe's waist, an umbilical cord to the womb of the ship, was supposed to have been fired from the Lyle gun, but now the gun was useless. Joe, spent, drained, now consumed, had dragged the rope thirty yards through the surf from the ship. He needed to get ashore while pulling the five-inch line fixed to his quarter inch leader, and then tie the rope down to a fixed point. This would make a breeches line, a zip line, from the SS Valencia. The system would then bring over one passenger at a time. Should this system fail, all would certainly die from drowning or exposure as the ship broke up, no more than a stone’s throw from shore, a shore none but the strongest man could reach, and even if reached, stay, without being dragged back into the water.
Joe’s feet kicked, he more crawled than swam, choking, sputtering sea water, as he moved through the refuse of the wreck: luggage, deck chairs, a bowler hat, broken railings, wooden shards from a lifeboat, and the floating dead. He remembered the last words he’d heard from the Second Mate. The man had passed him a jackknife just before Joe jumped from the stern. “If you can’t get the line in Joe, cut it. Save yourself.”
Saturday, January 20, 1906
Three steam whistles sounded out in the Embarcadero harbor, and the SS Valencia prepared to shove off from San Francisco on a clear California Saturday. The ship was crowded with excitement as those in the first class salon, the main, and even the lower deck where third class packed in, leaned out, calling, waving, to those on the dock. The shoremen released heavy lines from moorings, and the handsome steamship, 253 feet of curved black trim over a white hull, carrying 104 passengers served by 65 crew, eased from the dock, the steam engine engaging with a low throbbing rhythm. Seagulls dived and swooped from above, while well-dressed passengers (woman in broad brimmed hats, some with artificial flowers, trimmed masses of feathers, and occasionally, complete stuffed birds; men in bowties and tails, bowlers and top hats) threw bread crumbs they’d gained from the galley, the gulls screeching in the brisk salt air.
Up at first class, the main deck, seven-year-old Mary Pritchard dashed to the stern, wearing her finest blue dress for the occasion. “Mama, we’re on our way!” she cried, delighted, lifting herself onto the rail, pointing to the dock three decks below, while her hips balanced, and her feet dangled. Over the rail, the black water churned out from behind the ship as the steam engine caught stride with a steady thump, easing the ship out into the broad harbor. Mary’s mother, Melissa, alarmed at seeing her daughter so precarious, rushed to her from across the planked deck. But a working crew member appeared and pulled the young girl back, grabbing her by the scruff of her collar. “Careful girl!”.
Melissa ran up, turned her daughter, knelt down angry, and put a firm hand on each of her daughter’s shoulders. “Mary, that’s dangerous! I could lose you!”.
Never shy about questions, and to the embarrassment of her mother, Mary scanned the man who’d just picked her up off the rail like a doll, who to her, was a giant. “Are you the captain?”
The man’s face traced a smile. “No child, I’m nothing but a fireman. And it’s likely you’ll drown before Tuesday if you hang over rails.”
“What happens Tuesday?” Mary asked.
“Mary, you’re bothering the man,” interrupted Melissa. If Mary started with her questions, there’d be no end to it.
But there was also no denying Mary’s bright inquisitive eyes. The fireman declared, “Tuesday we dock at Victoria young lady, then on to Seattle.”
The man nodded shyly to Mary’s mother, Melissa, a striking young woman, and he noticed no ring. “Where are you headed?”
Melissa looked up to the man’s broad shoulders, his high cheekbones, the full black mustache—and to the kindest eyes she’d ever seen. She almost forgot where they were going, then caught herself. “We debark in Seattle on Tuesday afternoon.”
“What’s your name?” interjected Mary, jealous of how the man and her mother held each other’s eyes, leaving her out of the moment.
“I’m Joe, little miss. Joe Cigalos. And I’m not the captain but work the steam boilers.” He took a drag off his cigarette and Melissa noted the black coal on his hands, under his nails.
“Cigalos,” Melissa said, slowly pronouncing the name to get the accent right, just as he said it.
“Ci-GAY-los,” Joe said, correcting Melissa. “But call me Joe. That’s the easiest.”
“Joe then,” Melissa said, and didn’t know why, but had the feeling she knew this man, Joe Cigalos, and he'd known her, the entire twenty-seven years of her life.
A stern crewman in uniform approached. “You there! Cigalos! What’re you doing up here?” “You should be below. No coalers up here!”
“Yes Sir.” Joe took one last deep drag on his cigarette, rolled with no filter, his fingers holding the stub with just his thumb and index finger, and tossed the remains of the cigarette over the side. He smiled at the young girl, and it was the same smile crossing his face as when Mary had asked him if he was the captain. “Remember little dove. No hanging over rails for you. Ok?”
The uniformed officer looked after him as Joe retreated to the stairs, presumably returning to tend the fire deep within the ship. “Greeks!” he said disgustedly.
Monday, January 22, 1906
Finally off shift, near midnight, Joe was below decks in his cramped quarters when the ship near threw him from his bunk. Instantly, he was out of the cabin and up the companionway, taking the ladder two steps at a time. As he slammed through double doors, he was met by freezing rain in a southeaster wind pelting his face, a black clouded night. The 1,600 tons of ship was now full-stopped, bow forward, a shoreline less than a hundred yards away, the waves breaking violently in white foam. Though dark, Joe could still make out a cliff, some hundred feet high, rising abruptly where the rocks met the sea.
The Valencia’s stern slowly swung in the current like a counter clocking minute hand. The bow of the ship broke free from the reef and then the entire mass of the ship strained as it turned, completing one-hundred and eighty degrees, the stern coming around to face the cliff. The engines then powered full, reversing to drive the ship onto the reef in front of the rocks. The ship moaned as it ground to a halt some ninety-feet from shore. Joe noticed an older first-class couple under the stairs, the man wearing a skewed bowtie, a pince-nez clamped to his nose, wet straggling hair on a mostly bald head missing a top hat. The man protected his wife with his arm, staring unblinking, a vicissitude of fortune, a shear cliff wall.
The ship became strangely silent as the engines died. Passengers and crew ascended from below in small clusters to the main deck. A call was heard to lower the six lifeboats, two fore on the hurricane deck, four aft near the fiddler. Crewmen removed the canvas covers from the boats and the first boat was lowered from above to the top-most salon deck. The crew sent passengers back for life vests, explaining the ship was now run ashore, but in no danger of sinking.
Mary, back in their stateroom, struggled with her life vest. “Mama. Help me.”
“Stand still, it’s twisted.” Melissa found the tangled cord and re-strung the belt through the buckle. Calls echoed outside their room as stewards directed everyone to go on deck. Other passengers stumbled by, dragging luggage, causing bottlenecks. As she and Mary entered the narrow passageway, the lights flickered, went out, flickered again, then died, stranding them in pitch dark.
Mary cried out in the perfect black, “Mama, I’m scared,” and pulled her mother close, starting to cry.
With the lights gone, the panic began; passengers rushing, groping, down the narrow corridor to the exit up the stairs. Melissa and Mary were taken in a hideous current, screams penetrating the dark, a man’s hot garlic breath as he bullied his way by, sweating. A hand grabbed Melissa’s ankle from the floor, a fallen passenger. Melissa kicked, shook the hand off, held Mary as tight as she could, and so on they fought their way to the dim stairs.
Once on deck, Mary bolted ahead. “Mr. Cigalos!” Running to Joe, she hugged him around the waist.
With a red face, Joe’s voice broke as Melissa approached. “You both are ok?”
“Yes, but—” Melissa eyed the jam of passengers ahead climbing into a lifeboat. A woman fell on the gunwale. Two men climbed over her. “Are we sinking?”
“No. Not yet anyway.”
The lifeboat started to lower in front of them. It reached a deck below, then further still to the next deck below that. The boat then hung ten feet off the water. A man in a fine, gray, pinstripe suit in the front of the boat took a knife and sawed through the line holding the boat by the ravits protruding from the side of the ship. The knife cut through and the boat tipped, fell forward. Screams rose up from below as the lifeboat spilled the twenty or so men, women, and children into the ocean, which boiled against the side of the Valencia. The lifeboat crashed on top of them, passengers floundered, soon sucked down by the current against the steel hull.
A second boat filled with passengers broke free, drifted from the ship. The passengers began struggling in the wind, not accustomed to how oars fixed in pins, and were soon capsized as a wave upended the boat, hitting it broadside. Those not sucked under, hung on to the overturned lifeboat. Melissa saw they were losing strength in the freezing water. They wouldn’t last long in hypothermia.
Like herded animals looking for refuge, eighty or so passengers and crew, the survivors, gathered on the top most decks; the sea battering the ship beneath them, which now began to break apart with the wrenching sound of twisting steel. The word spread through the survivors; the lifeboats were destroyed or gone. With no recourse, those left huddled together waited for dawn. Maybe a ship would come. There had to be a ship.
Tuesday, January 23, 1906
All night Joe had held Melissa and Mary at the base of the main mast, the only warmth coming from their drenched bodies against each other. As the hours wore on, the sea claimed more and more passengers as the ship broke up, settling ever deeper, the water rising. Some passengers were stolen away by merciless waves, some passed silently from the cold, some preferred the night to end, despondent by the loss of loved ones, and simply let themselves slip away.
Once daylight broke, Joe went off to check with the crew. He joined to help fire a cannon-like device, a Lyle line, to shore. The first attempt exploded, the quarter inch rope line going nowhere, the man who aimed it to the trees above the cliffs ahead blowing off two of his own fingers. The second attempt threw the line powerfully in the cannon’s blast, the rope landing above the cliff, but with no one to attach the line to the land, the rope simply fell slack. And now the men were out of shells to try another throw. But what use would another throw be with no one on shore? The line must be fixed. Without a fixed line there would be no ferrying, no sending one passenger at a time, the breech basket unused.
When Joe returned Melissa held him. The long night had shown her what Joe was made of. He’d been offered a chance to escape; some crew members he knew called to him, “There’s a boat. We’re taking it.” He’d chosen to stay. In a desperate situation people may do desperate things, say more than they mean. Life accentuates. And in that exuberance of desperation, perhaps Melissa said more than she meant, telling Joe he was a better man than she’d ever known. Joe responded, no, he was just a fireman, a shoveler of coal. Melissa, perhaps, would lose what she felt that night in the clarity of rescue, but until then she held onto Joe, a man like she’d never known, and at least for that night, she loved him.
As the black night grayed; as the white day rose in the dawn sky, they both heard the call for a volunteer to swim in the line. Melissa held both Joe’s hands. She knew he must be the one to go.
Tuesday, January 23, 1906
As Joe pulled himself from the churning water, the taste of saltwater strong in his throat, the weight of the line stretched to the ship dragged him off the slick rocks back into the ocean. A last effort, tugging the line, his feet once again attempted traction on the rocks, but an eight-foot mounting wave broke on him, tons of water twisted his body, the undertow dragged him beneath the water away from the shore. He came up gasping, tried to swim to shore once again, but the line was too tight, too heavy in the water, and held him back.
Joe felt himself weakening as he threw his body on the next break of the waves. But his feet climbed on the rocks, and he was able to get a firm grip with his hands on a sharp edge of granite. He pulled himself up. But then the next wave hit and dragged him back once again. He reached for the knife; he cut the line.
Leaning off the stern was Second Mate P. Petterson standing with Seaman Berg. They watched as the roped line went slack to the ship, away from Joe. “That’s it. At least the fireman made it.” The Second Mate turned away.
Seaman Berg waited for Joe to gain the shore. He then called back to the Second Mate. “Sir. The man is swimming not to shore, but back to us!”
Second Mate Petterson ran to the rail and called to the deck below. “You there! Throw a preserver to that man. He’s returning to ship!”
With Joe back on board, there was not much time remaining before the ship would be overwhelmed. Already the main deck was separating. Once the deck split fully, the Valencia would simply fold in on itself, high tide would cover the ship, and there she’d rest.
Joe found Melissa and Mary still lashed to the deck. The waves would soon rise to attempt clawing them into the ocean. But Joe could tell at this point it didn’t matter. There was nothing to do but close their sightless eyes. He cut them loose and freed them to the sea.
The story of the wreck of the SS Valencia, in less than three-thousand words, is impossible to convey. What’s important to remember is real people died those few days in 1906.
It’s true no women or children survived the wreck (near 140 deaths, 37 survivors) and there were few heroes; certainly not the captain who incompetently (do to mis-navigation) led the ship onto a reef at the base of a Vancouver Island cliff, and certainly not the men who reached shore and still did not stay to help with the Lyle line.
A humble hero does stand out (who did survive), Joe Cigalos. The First Methodist Church in Seattle presented a medal for the Greek fireman’s bravery, which included trying to swim to shore to fix the line.
Neitzel, Michael C. The Final Voyage of the Valencia, 1995