The bleak history of Triangle Island

Local historian, Brenda McCorquodale, recounts the history of Triangle Island.

Triangle Island is an isolated and remote point of land located about 50 km northwest of Cape Scott, Vancouver Island.

It is likely that in prehistoric times First Nations visited the island, which has a unique triangle shape and no trees due to the hurricane-force winds that regularly bear down on it. It was named in 1849 by the British Admiralty survey for its distinctive shape.

During a survey of Vancouver Island in 1860, Captain G.H. Richards described Triangle Island as “about 1000 feet high – with a peculiar Notch summit.”  In 1862 Richards returned, noting in his journal “…this is third time I have been baulked in the examination of these Islands in consequence of fogs.”

A critical nesting and migration area, in some areas the bird droppings on the island are in excess of seven feet deep.

The fog, high winds and tide around Triangle Island make the seas a hazard to mariners, and in 1909 the government started construction on a light house and radio operator station.

In order to build the station, which was erected on the crest of a peak, an 1,820-foot tramway was constructed.  Building materials, and later food, supplies, and even people, were placed in carts which were winched up and down the slopes by a steam donkey, and later a gas engine.

The first lightkeeper, James Davis, spent almost three years on the island with his wife and three daughters. Davis took care of the light which included a giant lens that rotated on a 950-pound bed of mercury which would be wiped clean by hand by the light keeper when soot accumulated.

The radio operators, usually young men, were assigned to 6 week shifts on Triangle.  Gales, fog, and tides often conspired to strand them there for much longer, and some ended up staying 18 months at one time.

There were times when tensions between the lightkeeper and the radio operator were fierce. A fist fight in 1911 reportedly resulted in orders for the light station and the radio operators to “have no communication whatsoever… except when business necessitates it.”

It soon became clear that the Triangle Island light was too high to serve mariners effectively. There is generally a rule in the construction of lighthouses that lights be no higher than 150 ft above the water; the Triangle Island light was significantly higher. This rendered the light largely ineffective.

The ferocious weather on Triangle Island posed problems for the construction of the station from the beginning. The putty used to seal the glass on the light would not set because of the constant wind.  During numerous storms radio antennas were snapped, a roof and chimneys flew off buildings, outhouses blew away, and other buildings were at risk of shaking off their foundations. Some residents reportedly became seasick from the shaking of the buildings. After two years the buildings that had not been destroyed were described as “unfit for habitation.”

Buildings at beach level did not fare much better. In about 1911, high seas swept away two storage buildings that were thought to have been constructed above the high tide line. The same thing happened again two years later, resulting in 450 oil drums blowing about the beach.

A system of tethers linked the main buildings (the light station, the lightkeeper’s residence, the radio room, and the radio operator’s residence) to stop people from blowing away. During some particularly bad storms the radio operators sought shelter in the lightkeeper’s house, which was more sturdily constructed.

Fishermen in the area would often stop to visit and drop off fresh fish for those working at the light station and radio room.

The light was decommissioned in 1919, and radio operations were shut down in 1921.

The old infrastructure from the Triangle Island light sat in storage for many years, before it was obtained by the museum in Sooke. Today it serves as an interpretive exhibit, and a reminder of the bleak history of this remote island.

Triangle Island is an important bird refuge. It is home to the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific Coast. About 40 per cent of seabirds that breed in British Columbia nest within the Scott Islands, and 90 per cent of Tuffed Puffins and about half of all the world’s Cassin’s Auklets breed in this area.

In 2002 Allison Watt published a book entitled “The Last Island: A Naturalist’s Sojourn on Triangle Island,” which outlines her experiences spending four months on the island in 1980 as a part of research on the island’s bird populations.

Today Triangle Island is known as the Anne Vallée Triangle Island Ecological Reserve, named after a young researcher who died of a fall off of a cliff on the Island in 1982.  The Island is a part of the Scott Islands Provincial Park, and a part of the area under consideration for the Scott Islands Marine National Wildlife Area.  Today visitors must receive a permit to set foot on Triangle Island.

Although relatively close to the North Island, in some ways Triangle Island is a world away.

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