tofino history - the wreck of the emma utter

The Wreck of the Emma Utter

by David Griffiths, Tofino


On January 9th 1880 an extremely deep low pressure system swept along the Westcoast from Oregon to Vancouver Island.

Snow-laden trees crashed to the forest floor, the tides rose 7 feet higher than previously recorded, wharves washed away (sound familiar so far?) and down in Coos Bay the five year old, three masted topsail schooner Emma Utter dragged her anchor and smashed ashore.

Built at the Hall Brother's Shipyard in Port Ludlow, Washington in 1875 the 279 ton schooner apparently survived the "Great Gale of 1880" as almost 30 years later she was still engaged in the lucrative Pacific lumber trade.

On February 7th 1904, after loading 360,000 feet of lumber at Gray's Harbor bound for San Francisco, the Emma Utter departed Aberdeen, Washington under tow of the tug Traveler.

Later reports would suggest that the tug released her charge too early, causing the schooner to strike the Columbia River Bar, loosening a seam that would ultimately kill her.

Two days into her voyage, while beating into a fierce southeast gale, the Emma Utter began to take on water.

By February 11th, with the pumps unable to keep up with the rising waters and his ship wallowing and unmanageable Captain Hansen gave his six man crew the order to abandon her.

The ship's boat was swung out and lowered.

Hansen and the crew were making their way down the Emma Utter's heaving side when a particularly large wave caused her to pitch violently, shifting some of the lumber deck cargo and trapping crewmember Henry Byndall's foot beneath it.

Unable to extricate himself and with the others unwilling to re-board the vessel to assist him, Byndall watched as his shipmates pulled away into the Pacific swells. Trapped and alone on a foundering vessel, Byndall was driven northwards towards the Westcoast of Vancouver Island before the raging gale. For five days Byndall drifted helplessly as the ferocity of the storm increased, carrying away the schooner's rigging and ultimately dismasting her.

Finally, on February 16th, the Emma Utter grounded off Lennard Island at the entrance to Clayoquot Sound and commenced to pound heavily on the reef. Byndall's predicament was now more desperate than ever with the prospect of being lost at sea replaced with one of being smashed to pieces on the rocks, along with his stricken ship.

His only chance lay in rescue and as if in answer to the sailor's prayers a canoe rounded Lennard Island and pulled alongside the Emma Utter.

Onboard the canoe were two men from Opitsat; Joseph Jackson and Joe Tam.

The ship was going to pieces under them as the two men boarded her and freed Byndall, accepting an iou from the grateful sailor for services rendered.

Tam and Jackson took Byndall to the trading post at Clayoquot where he later took passage to Victoria on the steamer Queen City. Whether the iou was ever honoured is not recorded.

The Emma Utter quickly became a total loss, though some of her lumber cargo was later salvaged from the beaches of Templar Channel.

Years ago, on an extreme low tide, Rod Palm, some of his kids and I scoured the exposed reefs off Lennard Island for traces of the old schooner but found nothing definitive.

Smashed to pieces and put through the grinder it's doubtful that much remains of the Emma Utter now, but no doubt, someday, some trace of her will be found.

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

Tofino Time March 2007

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