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Children’s book chronicles Christmas windfall from Vancouver Island shipwreck

Tale recalls hospitality of the locals/ sneaky salvaging after boat went aground in 1927
Museum at Campbell River Curator Beth Boyce is pleased to release ‘Twas the Wreck of Northwestern. Ronan O’Doherty/ Campbell River Mirror

On a stormy December night 94 years ago, a ship carrying 187 people ran aground off the coast of Quadra Island.

What could have been a tragedy turned into a neat story which showcased local hospitality and the joys of a seasonal windfall during tough times.

To keep the memory of the remarkable event alive, the Museum at Campbell River has released ‘Twas the Wreck of Northwestern, a children’s book cleverly told in the format of A Night Before Christmas, and beautifully illustrated.

Curator, Beth Boyce, said the book came into being as the museum was trying to find new ways of engaging with the community in the fall of 2020.

It could not have school groups come in, and was not doing any of its normal programming due to pandemic restrictions.

Jemima Hamilton, a seasonal employee, had the terrific idea to convert the story into a poem which ran in The Mirror. Her co-worker, Rhys Anderson, mentioned she was an illustrator, and decided to take a crack at drawing a few accompanying pages.

“Her illustrations were so fantastic,” Boyce said, “So I thought, yes, we’re making a book.”

READ MORE: Remembering the wreck of the SS Northwestern

READ MORE: LOOKING BACK: The S.S. Northwestern – The story of two pieces of glassware

Once Anderson wrapped up her drawings, which were inspired by historical photos, Boyce added a section at the back of the book detailing how the museum has preserved the story for future generations.

The tale is a special one in Campbell River and Quadra Island lore.

“It was kind of one of those weird tragedies were no one was hurt, no one was injured, and everybody got off safely,” Boyce said.

The crew and passengers were able to escape without a scrape, and were wined and dined at the Willows Hotel in Campbell River before being billeted locally.

A fair bit of cargo did not fare as well when the boat ran aground, falling off the ship and drifting into the waters.

Seeing as it was the Depression, locals who were living on the brink took advantage of the salvage opportunities.

“Nobody had very much,” Boyce explained. “And suddenly there’s this wealth of material, and it was right at Christmas.

“So it has this nostalgia in the history of the local area as being one of the best Christmas’ ever.”

People plucked boxes of fresh oranges, bananas, butter, wine, and turkeys right out of the sea, or off the shore.

“Someone even got a sewing machine they used for the rest of their life,” Boyce said.

The museum has a pair of frilly pink vases which were salvaged from the cargo in its collection. Sharp-eyed readers should be able to spot them when leafing through the pages of the book.

Holiday shoppers can find the book at the Museum at Campbell River.

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