|Minnie Patterson and her dog, from Alberni Valley Museum|
Winter storms in the Pacific Northwest seldom get the same media attention Atlantic hurricanes do, but they can be equally cruel and destructive. The most vulnerable sites are those exposed to the full force of the open sea. The southwest shore of Vancouver Island, British Columbia is such a place, a defenseless margin of water, saw-toothed rocks, and stands of ancient trees. Great Pacific low pressure systems march northward one upon another from November through March and smash into Vancouver Island as if hitting a wall. The result is hurricane-force winds and enormous waves. Firs and cedars topple, rocks are thrown about like dice, and ships are cast ashore as if they are mere toy boats in a bathtub.
December 6, 1906 dawned at Cape Beale Lighthouse with ominous signs of an approaching storm. Lightkeeper Tom Patterson (also spelled Paterson), cleaning the lamps and lens in the lantern room of the 1872 lighthouse, scanned the ocean horizon off Barkley Sound. There were light winds from the southeast and the slate-colored sky was punctuated only by a feeble spot of white—the winter sun struggling to define its position behind the clouds. The tide was running higher than usual and waves were picking up. All of this augured trouble.
|Cape Beale Lighthouse as it looked when Minnie Patterson lived there. Jim Gibbs Collection|
The topside of a spinning low was beginning to bear down on Vancouver Island with Cape Beale in its path. Patterson knew the night ahead would challenge his nerves and require the help of his wife, Minnie. He had no doubt she would rise to the situation. She had mothered five children, several of them born at the lighthouse with no midwife in attendance. She could handle a boat as well as any seaman, chop wood like a lumberman, hunt deer and elk and turn them into delicious stew, and she knew the operation of every aspect of the light station. Minnie was, in a word, indomitable.
By late afternoon, daylight was rapidly waning and the temperature hovered near freezing. Patterson returned to the tower to light up for the long night ahead. He cranked up the weights of the clockworks that turned the lens, filled the kerosene reservoirs of the lamps, and lit the mantles. A soft glow infused the lantern with light as the flame ramped up with an asthmatic hiss. Patterson let it burn loudly for a few seconds to work out any air bubbles, then lowered the flame to a quiet purr. With a flick, he removed the stopgap from the clockworks and set the opulent prism lens in motion. Its beams shot into the darkness likes spokes on a great wheel of light. Satisfied that all was set, he climbed down to the watch room where he settled into a chair, filled his pipe, and began the long watch.
By midnight, the storm descended with extraordinary fury. Winds pummeled the tower at a steady 50-mph and stronger gusts bowed the lantern panes and drove spray over the cupola. A thick coating of salt encrusted itself on the windows, requiring the keeper to go out on the gallery every hour or so and scrape them clean. Now and then, an errant rock would fly up from the sea and hit the tower, or a shower of pebbles would clatter upon the roof and catwalk. Unflinching, Patterson stayed by the light and fed its lamps in hopes the beams might aid any vessels caught in the storm. But when first light came, Patterson’s fears were realized. Several miles offshore was the faint outline of a ship, its masts snapped like matchsticks and desperate survivors clinging to what remained of the tangled rigging.
|From www.tofinotime.com. Original owner of photo is BC Archives.|
Patterson rushed for the house to tell his wife he had sighted a wreck and to telegraph the town of Bamfield for help. She met him halfway, wearing a grave expression. She had seen the ship too and had already tried the telegraph. It was dead, its lines broken by fallen trees. Without a thought for their own safety, Tom and Minnie Patterson resolved to get help. He would stay at the lighthouse and try to devise some way to reach the castaways; she would run six miles through rain and hail to Bamfield Inlet where the lighthouse tender Quadra had anchored to ride out the storm. Getting there would require all her strength and determination. She knew lives depended on her.
|This is the lighthouse tender Quadra, about 1920, after it had been placed in service as a rumrunner vessel.|
QUADRA on Rum Row
from the photo archives of S.P.H.S©
Bundled in a wool Jersey coat and hat, and wearing her husband’s slippers rather than the ponderous high-button shoes of the day, she picked her way down the rock-rimmed border of the light station to the treacherous sand spit connecting the cape to the mainland. Parts of the spit were bare at low tide, but about 150-feet of it was awash now. Minnie Patterson sprinted over the spit, waded through the low water, and leaped up the steep bank to the mainland trail.
Her lungs felt as if they might burst, but she pushed on. Rain and hail pelted her. The trail was indistinct from the debris cast down by the storm. At times, she was able to follow it only by locating the telegraph line, strung tree to tree, and threading it through her fingers as she ran. A rowboat lay tethered at Bamfield Creek, and she buoyed her flagging spirits with visions of it. Rowing to the Quadra would be much easier than bushwhacking. When she reached the creek, however, the boat was gone.
Undaunted, Mrs. Patterson made her way along the tortured shore of the creek, over two and a half miles of wrack and slippery moss, to the home of her friend Annie McKay, wife of the former Cape Beale lightkeeper. The two women hauled out a skiff, dragged it down to the creek, and paddled for the Quadra. The tender’s captain was incredulous when he saw the bedraggled pair. They wasted no time with explanations and urged the captain to set sail at once. With the Quadra headed for the wreck, the women rowed to shore and climbed the hill to the telegraph station to summon additional help from Nanaimo.
By now Minnie Patterson looked a shambles. She was wet to the skin and wheezing loudly. The telegraph operators implored her to lie down and rest, but she only accepted a quick cup of tea before declaring, “I must get back to my baby!” She made a joke about her husband being unable to tend the lighthouse, along with caring for a nursing infant and four other children. She sprinted off on a return trek to the lighthouse, but the telegraph operators insisted they accompany her.
The three rowed out the inlet and south to Bamfield Creek and the head of the telegraph trail. While in the boat Mrs. Patterson suffered dreadful cramps in her legs and began to show symptoms of hypothermia. She said nothing, however, and eagerly leaped from the skiff when it reached the creek and hit the train running. Hours later the group arrived at the lighthouse.
Minnie Patterson, her baby suckling at her breast, watched through her telescope as the Quadra took off the stranded crew of the bark Coloma. Not a single crewman perished. A short time later the ship hit a reef and broke into pieces, disgorging the cargo in its hold. The rescue had been launched just in time. Minnie Patterson spent a woeful night with chilblains and a nasty cough that would remain with her the rest of her life.
Word of the lighthouse wife’s bravery soon reached the press. Reporters flocked to the tiny hamlet of Bamfield only to be captivated by the remote and dangerously beautiful isle where Minnie Patterson lived. They were dumbfounded, too, by the woman herself— slight and comely, in her early thirties, and looking more like a girl “than most women of twenty,” according to one journalist. When questioned about Mrs. Patterson, Victoria’s Marine Agent, Captain James Gaudin, described her as “one of the best and grittiest little women ever I met.”
|A formal portrait of the Pattersons, from Alberni Valley Museum|
The Toronto Globe presented her with a silver plate. The women of the nearby cities of Victoria and Vancouver collected $315.15 as a reward for Minnie and also gave her a gold locket. A lifesaving metal, gold plate, and prize of $50 were sent by the Canadian Government. The officers and crew of the steamer Queen City gave her a silver tea set and new slippers for Tom Patterson. The pair Minnie had worn on December 6 were nearly without soles.
|A copy of an award given to Minnie Patterson, in the Alberni Valley Museum.|
Minnie Patterson was dubbed “The Grace Darling of Canada,” after a girl of similar mettle who had rescued shipwreck survivors off Longstone Lighthouse in England in 1838. Sadly, like her English namesake, Minnie suffered a malady common to lightkeepers. The damp conditions of Cape Beale, and the exertions required that stormy day in 1906, weakened her constitution. She contracted tuberculosis and died five years later.