The Wreck of the Northwestern Leads to a Memorable Christmas for Quadra Islanders

Guest Blogger: Erika Anderson from The Museum at Campbell River

From the December 15, 1927 issue of the Comox Argus:


Crashing into the rocks at Cape Mudge, ten miles east of Campbell River, Vancouver Island, in a blinding snowstorm at 5 a.m. Sunday, the northbound American steamer Northwestern in the Seattle-Alaska service, imperiled the lives of 187 passengers and crews for eight hours before they were rescued by a 40-ton halibut gas steamer Explorer of Juneau.

In the blinding snow the ship had not seen the lights from the Cape Mudge lighthouse and ran into the rocks.  In the Museum at Campbell River archives is an account from Charles J. Warnock who was aboard the Northwestern when it ran aground.  He was 12 years old at the time.

“Aboard the Northwestern, my mother and I quickly settled in and I went exploring around the ship. I recall talking to one of the crew members as he was inspecting the lifeboats, and asked “Have you ever had to use these boats?”  And he replied, “No, and I hope we never need to.”

That evening the passengers enjoyed dinner and music, a little dancing, and snacks.  By 9:30 most everyone had retired to his or her stateroom. I must have been quite tired from the first day’s activities as I fell right asleep, as did my mother.

I recall that sometime in the very early morning hours, the steward knocked on the door and instructed everyone to get dressed in warm clothes and put their life jackets on and proceed to the main deck.  We were informed that the ship had gone aground.

My mother and I quickly got dressed, put our life jackets on and followed the steward to the main deck.  The ship was rocking from the storm and my mother promptly got seasick. The steward put her and several other women in a stateroom while we waited for a rescue vessel.”  


View of Campbell River that the passengers from the Northwestern would have seen.
View of Campbell River that the passengers from the Northwestern would have seen.

Due to the weather, rescue efforts were delayed for eight hours after the ship ran aground.  All of the passengers were ferried to Campbell River where they received a hospitable welcome at the Willows Hotel until the Alaska Steamship Company could send another ship to pick them up.

…all were soon warmed and heartened with hot coffee. Although accommodation was strained by the sudden invasion of such a large crowd, everyone was fed and a dance was arranged, reported the Argus.

Passengers of the wrecked Northwestern are rescued by the Explorer of Juneau.
Passengers of the wrecked Northwestern are rescued by the Explorer of Juneau.
Passengers arrive at the Willows Hotel in Campbell River.
Passengers arrive at the Willows Hotel in Campbell River.

The Northwestern remained grounded at Cape Mudge well into the New Year, and over the years many a tale has been told about the salvage of goods from the freight-laden ship.  The cargo consisted of Christmas food and supplies, and much of it ended up in the sea and on the shores of Quadra Island and Campbell River.  It had been a tough year in the area and the goods that washed ashore were quickly salvaged.  The islanders were grateful for the bounty that included turkeys, chickens, oranges, apples and other goods that arrived just in time for the Christmas season.  Albert Bigold, who grew up on Quadra Island, recalled how everyone on the island loaded up on goods and the local storekeepers complained to the police due to the lack of business.  Police began searching houses for the items taken from the ship.

“Dad had it all stashed in the hay – all the goodies – and five years later I was stirring up the bank and I found this 5 gallon crock of wine that had been hidden off the Northwestern.”

The Christmas of 1927 will go down in the region’s history as a bountiful and merry season for area residents!


To find out more about shipwrecks around Campbell River, or explore any part of Campbell River and region’s history, visit the Museum at Campbell River’s Archives Research Centre Tuesday to Friday from 1pm to 4pm.