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Thousands of Ships Have Wrecked in the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credit: Giulio Andreini/ UCG/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images/ Cropped
Photo Credit: Giulio Andreini/ UCG/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images/ Cropped

Ocean voyages are not always smooth sailing, and that was especially true hundreds of years ago. While many areas of the world are easy to travel, some are naturally more dangerous than others. The Graveyard of the Pacific is one of the treacherous regions. This stretch of coast earned its somber nickname because it’s been the site of thousands of wrecked ships since heavy travel began there in the 18th century.

Graveyard of the Pacific

Located on the western coast of North America, the Graveyard of the Pacific spans from Tillamook Bay in Oregon up to Cape Scott at the northern tip of Vancouver Island in Canada. The area received its name quite early on when there was a sharp increase in travel due to the fur trade. The people who named the site might have been hoping to help others avoid meeting a tragic end in the watery depths.

Rocky shore on the coast.
Rocky coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, 1993. (Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocke t/ Getty Images)
Wrecked sternwheeler surrounded by a group of people in canoes.
Shipwrecked sternwheeler surrounded by tourists on the coast of British Columbia, 1905. (Photo Credit: BC Provincial Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Rocky shore with green trees in the background.
Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island, Canada, 2016. (Photo Credit: Klaus Nowottnick / picture alliance/ Getty Images)

It’s unnaturally common for this area to experience dangerous weather conditions like dense fog and intense storms, contributing to the number of shipwrecks. If this wasn’t bad enough, the physical shoreline is also extremely dangerous and rocky. Some sandbars shift locations, and there are rip tides and rocky reefs.

Dangerous waters

Along the western coast of Vancouver Island lie the rocky reefs that can easily damage the sides of vessels. The Columbia Bar, a massive sandbar, sits at the entrance to the Columbia River and is considered one of the most dangerous bar crossings in the world. The river also contributes to some of the strong currents in the area, similar to those in the area of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Ship sailing down the Columbia River with a bridge in the foreground and treed mountains in the background.
View of the Columbia River from the Multnomah Falls trail, Oregon, 2022. (Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/ LightRocket/ Getty Images)
Sunset over the water with rocks in the foreground.
Sunset over the Strait of Juan de Fuca, n.d. (Photo Credit: Parametrix, Inc. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
View of North Head Lighthouse looking out at the water across grassy hills.
North Head Lighthouse, one of many that sit on the stretch of the coast making up the Graveyard of the Pacific, August 3, 2018. (Photo Credit: Udo S / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ships have been wrecking in the Graveyard of the Pacific for hundreds of years. Since European explorers arrived in the area in the 1700s, their vessels have had to navigate these treacherous coastal waters. Most of the wrecks occurred before the 1920s, but many people still fall victim to this part of the ocean yearly. In fact, the West Coast Trail was constructed along the Vancouver coast in 1907 specifically for survivors of wrecks to get to safety.

Thousands of wrecks

There have been over 2,000 shipwrecks here, with 700 dead. These numbers have been dramatically reduced, thanks to the addition of multiple lighthouses to help illuminate the dangerous areas and stricter rules about which ships can traverse some of the more complex parts. Modern technology on vessels has also helped reduce the number of wrecks, although it is still considered a hazardous area to travel.

Waterfall and a small pond surrounded by mossy rocks.
A small waterfall on the Darling River as seen from the West Coast Trail, 2011. (Photo Credit: Paxson Woelber / Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0)
Excavator on a rock jetty in the water.
South jetty of the Columbia River under repair, one of the areas that make up the Graveyard of the Pacific, 2022. (Photo Credit: Tedder / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Fort Stevens State Park beach with a cloudy sky overhead.
Fort Stevens State Park, one of the best places along the coast to see the wrecks of the Graveyard of the Pacific, 2012. (Photo Credit: Keira Morgan/ Flickr/ CC BY-NC 2.0)

Along this infamous stretch of the coast, not many of the wrecks are still visible, even though most of them were left where they fell due to the difficulty of rescue ships navigating the area. A select few can be seen best at Fort Stevens State Park in Oregon. Most of the Graveyard of the Pacific wrecks have tragic stories, but a few stand out. SS Valencia survived use during the American-Spanish War, only to become one of these coastal wrecks.

Most famous victims

While traveling the coast in January 1906, SS Valencia missed her turn into the Strait of Juan de Fuca due to low visibility. Instead, she crashed right into Vancouver Island. Although the lifeboats were lowered, they were all lost to the seas. Only a handful of men made it out alive, leaving the women and children aboard. The men returned with help, but the ship collapsed on itself before they could rescue the others. Somewhere between 117-181 people died, with the official report stating that 136 souls were lost.

Piece of a metal shipwreck stuck in sand with waves lapping against it.
Wreck of the Peter Iredale on the Oregon Coast, December 30, 2016. (Photo Credit: LDELD / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)
Large steamship wrecked on a rocky island with water in the foreground and trees in the background.
SS Camosun ran aground on Digby Island on the Vancouver coast, March 1916. (Photo Credit: W.W. Wrathall / BC Provincial Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Large rusted ship wrecked on its side in the middle of the water.
Wreck of the New Carissa in the Port of Coos Bay, Oregon, one of the more modern ships to wreck in the Graveyard of the Pacific, 2008. (Photo Credit: Erin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

In June 1929, SS Laurel was traveling along the coast with a load of lumber when a storm hit. The strong wind and waves pushed her onto Peacock Spit, part of the Columbia River Bar, severing the front half of the ship. The crew knew they were going down, so they jumped overboard and were rescued by the nearby Coast Guard. Only one of their men died.

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Despite this incident, SS Admiral Benson traveled in the same area only a year later. Mistaking the wrecked Laurel for a navigational aid, her captain also ran them right into Peacock Spit.