tofino history - the sinking of the coloma

Tofino history: The sinking of the Coloma

by David Griffiths, Tofino


This is a shipwreck story, but perhaps more importantly it is a tale of the sacrifice and selflessness of a young pioneer woman of the Coast.

A hundred years ago this month the American bark Coloma cleared Cape Flattery, bound for Australia from Seattle, with a general cargo consisting mainly of lumber. Despite a recent and extensive refit the Coloma's ageing hull would prove no match for the winter's bitter sea. On clearing the Cape the Coloma was engulfed in a southeast gale which swept her towards the Vancouver Island shore.

On the morning of December 6th 1906, with her sails blown to rags, wallowing in the heavy seas and with water overtaking her pumps the Coloma drifted to within sight of the Cape Beale light and keeper Thomas Paterson. The stricken bark and her people's fate seemed sealed; to die upon the rocks below the light, unless help could be summoned.

tofino history - minnie paterson, husband thomas and family

With the telegraph line to Bamfield down to due to the storm and Paterson unable to abandon the foghorn by day or the light by night, his young wife and mother of four, Minnie, set out for the village some six miles distant.

With her pet dog at her side Mrs. Paterson trudged for four miles along the rough shoreline, as the gale reached its height. With the rain driving sideways she staggered through heavy bush for the final two miles. On reaching Bamfield, her clothes in tatters and on the edge of exhaustion, Minnie made her way to the house of telegraph line-keeper James Cox. Cox was out attempting to repair the more than one hundred breaks in the line, so Cox's wife Annie and Mrs. Paterson launched a boat and rowed out to the government steamer Quadra, at anchor in the harbour, in order to alert those aboard to the Coloma's imminent destruction.

As the Quadra got up steam Minnie began her long trek home. Though still a relatively young woman it seems that she never really recovered from the exertion of that mercy mission and died just five years later, being hailed as the Grace Darling of Canada's wild west coast.

Soon after clearing Cape Beale Captain Hackett onboard the Quadra sighted the Coloma between the breaking swells. Unable to bring the steamer alongside the wounded bark Hackett lowered a boat and had a line rowed out to her. Just as the last of the Coloma's crew were taken safely off, the bark swung broadside to the swell; striking and grounding on a small offshore reef.

Onboard the Quadra, Victoria-based photographer P.J. Hall snapped what many believed would be the last image of the dying ship.

But the northeast Pacific was not done with her yet. Three days later, after having freed herself from the reef and drifting some fifty miles north, the derelict Coloma came crashing ashore on the southwest end of Echachist Island, in Clayoquot Sound.

In an interview some years ago the late Mrs. George Dan Simon of Opitsat recalled the wreck and its aftermath and how for days after the Coloma came ashore the beaches of Echachist were strewn with lumber and casks of butter; the former being used in construction, the latter shared amongst Tla-o-qui-aht.

In his journal entry for December 9th 1906 Lennard Island light-keeper Frank Garrard records sighting the Coloma drifting off Echachist.

Unaware of what had transpired off Cape Beale, Garrard and his daughter Ethel rowed out to the hulk only to find her abandoned and beginning to break up in the heavy surf.

Many years later Tofino errand boy Ian MacLeod noticed that his employer regularly purchased ingots of lead from the Tla-o-qui-aht. These ingots, as often as not, were covered with marine growth and although the Tla-o-qui-aht would not reveal their source McLeod noted that their appearance coincided with the Tla-o-qui-aht's annual move to their summer fishing village on Echachist.

One year he visited the island and in a small bay on its exposed shore he saw for himself the evidence of a wreck; a few ribs protruding a foot or so out of the water, a little distance from shore. From this he concluded that at times of extreme low tides the Tla-o-qui-aht were able to wade out to the wreck and retrieve the lead.

In 1969 Tofino diver Rod Palm and commercial fisherman and history buff Len Clay located the remains of the Coloma in 25 - 45 feet of water, off the southern end of Echachist Island. What's' left of the wreck lies scattered across the rocky, surf-swept seafloor. A small anchor from the site still lies out in front of what used to be the Westcoast Maritime Museum (now the Whale Centre) on Campbell Street in Tofino. It awaits some form of interpretation; some mention of the Coloma's sad end, some recognition of Minnie Paterson's brave sacrifice a hundred years ago this month.

David Griffiths is a local maritime historian and executive director of theTonquin Foundation. For info contact the Tonquin Foundation at (250) 725.4488 or email

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