tofino history - the sinking of the hera

The Sinking of the Hera

by David Griffith, Tofino


The Hera, departed Seattle for Honolulu on November 18th 1899 with a 700 ton cargo that included grain, animal feed, flour, tin-ware, grand pianos, 1800 barrels of Roche Harbour lime, a knocked-down schoolhouse on deck and 60,000 quart bottles of Seattle Malting and Brewing Company’s “Rainier” beer, packed in 1000 oak-staved barrels.

Aboard were Captain J.J. Warren, part-owner Mr. Shirk and his daughter Mabel, as well as fifteen crewmembers.

The Hera sheltered at Clallam Bay for a week as continual storms chewed up the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Finally Warren raised sail and the Hera crept passed Cape Flattery, straight into the teeth of a raging southeaster which began to sweep her towards the unforgiving shore of Vancouver Island.

As the gale worsened and Captain and crew fought to wear the ship out to sea, water began seeping between the hull planks of the aging Hera.

It soon became apparent that the pumps could not handle the increasing flow and even though the volatile lime had been loaded high in the hold, on top of the other cargo, it got a good soaking.

The barrels swelled and burst and the lime began to smoulder.

Warren later wrote, “The smell of smoke put the crew into a frenzy; sealing companionways, hatches, vents and caulking open deck seams in an attempt to smother the growing inferno”.

With his vessel afire and in a leaking condition Warren ran her before the wind, towards land. For twenty-four hours straight the crew manned the pumps and attempted to contain the fire.

Late on the afternoon of November 25th the Hera dropped anchor off Lennard Island, at the approach to Templar Channel, Clayoquot Sound.

The sea was still high and the fire increasing in intensity when Warren had the vessel’s only lifeboat swung out and he, Shirk, Mabel and two crewmen set off to get help from the settlement on Stubbs Island. Before they reached it, a group of local men in the Tofino lifeboat, with Fillip Jacobsen at the tiller, had already set out for the stricken Hera.

Abandoned, the Hera drifted with the incoming tide into and around Tofino Harbour.

The fire, now consuming decks, masts and rigging, lit up the dark, November night.

Mrs. Spain on Stubbs Island wrote;

“As I write she is just in front of the house, one of the grandest yet one of the most awful sights I have ever seen.

“The whole room is lit up with the light from her, and I have only to turn my head to see her.

“She is one mass of roaring flame, and it is a very black night, the whole harbour is lit up”

Finally, as water filled her holds, the Hera slipped to the seafloor off Felice Island and entombed up by the sands of Clayoquot Sound.

In December of 1974, seventy-five years after the Hera disappeared from view, a commercial crab fisherman alerted Tofino diver, maritime historian and all-round wreck hound, Rod Palm, to the fact that one of his traps had fouled on the bottom and that when he’d pulled up the trap’s line it was rust-stained.

Never one to turn down a lead Palm immediately headed out to the site and followed the line down.

On reaching bottom he found the line tangled around a large ship’s deck knee, protruding about a foot out of the sand.

A quick scan of the area revealed more visible deck knees, ship’s rigging, deadeyes, and bottles everywhere.

Closer inspection showed that the whole port-side of the vessel, above the waterline, was exposed.

A quick check through his files and Palm was able to identify the partially buried hulk as that of the Hera.

Given the wreck’s fine state of preservation and the fact that he had dove that area many times before without seeing any evidence of a shipwreck, Palm concluded that the sands of Clayoquot Sound had only recently eased their grip on the old schooner.

Palm’s euphoria over the discovery quickly turned to concern for the wreck’s protection.

A trip to Victoria and a visit to the Heritage Conservation Branch ensured its’ legal protection under the old Historic Sites Act, designating the Hera wreck British Columbia’s first protected, underwater heritage site.

With permission from the Heritage Conservation Branch to undertake a four day test excavation, Palm returned to Tofino only to find that a group of divers from Port Alberni had salvaged all visible and easily accessible deadeyes which, after realizing they had too many to transport back home, they dumped overboard at the Government Wharf in Tofino.

Undaunted, Palm undertook his excavation, which revealed that the fire had indeed ravaged the Hera’s decks, rigging and most of the lime but her hull, cargo and fittings below the lime had escaped the inferno and were in a remarkably good state of preservation.

Most of her 1000 barrel cargo of bottled beer remained intact; their intended destination stenciled in black paint on the barrel tops “Lovejoy & Co., Honolulu”.

There must have been an awful lot of thirsty Hawaiians, back in the winter of 1899.

On August 12 & 13 divers and surface support from the Tonquin Foundation, under a permit from the Provincial Archaeology Branch, removed 30 fouled and abandoned commercial crab traps from the Hera wreck.

The site was also marked bow and stern with green wreck marker buoys in the hope that further loss of traps and damage to the site will cease.

Under the terms of the Heritage Conservation Act it is an offence to disturb the site or remove any cultural material from it.

Please Respect Our Maritime Heritage.

For info contact the Tonquin Foundation at (250) 725.4488 or email

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