A Ship Carrying Comedians Sank. Believe it or Not, Funny Business Ensued

Vaudeville costumes washed up on shore, and local workers partied the night away

What would you do if you found a floating tickle trunk?

How about a happy shipwreck story for a change?

Have you heard the one about the Vaudeville troupe who were shipwrecked off the Island coast in 1911?

What is vaudeville, you might ask? Well, you could think of it as the precursor to a modern drag show, in a sense.

Vaudeville originated in France and was a popular comedy genre in the early 1900s across the continent; it truly was everything but the kitchen sink.

Vaudevillians could be everything from comedians, singers, plate-spinners, and ventriloquists to… *inhales* dancers, musicians, acrobats, animal trainers…

To put it simply, anyone who could keep an audience’s interest for more than three minutes.

Maybe you’d liken it more to the Ed Sullivan Show. (Listen, kid, it was a popular TV show back in the day!)

So when a ship carrying a bunch of Vaudevillian passengers — and their fanciful finery — sank just off the coast of Willow Point south of Campbell River over a century ago, some entertaining events followed.

It was Jan. 26, 1911, at about 3:10 in the afternoon.

The American steamship Cottage City was travelling from Seattle to Alaska through a blinding snowstorm. The ship had a 59-member crew, 37 passengers, and 100 tons of freight.

The Cottage City’s passenger list included six members of a Vaudevillian troupe.

Waters were treacherous, and Captain Jensen was sailing blind into Discovery Passage.

As you can imagine, this didn’t end as anyone hoped.

At 3:27, the 232-foot-long wooden-hulled steamer started scraping rocks, running partially aground on Willow Point Reef.

The ship’s lifeboats were launched and reached Quadra Island.

On land, they were greeted by a Scotsman named John Davidson. He was the keeper of the Cape Mudge lighthouse, who quickly guided everyone to shelter, giving them food and lodging.

Other life rafts followed the shore and continued up to Campbell River, along with the ship’s papers and money.

Luckily, everyone survived the ordeal.

However, most of their baggage on board was left behind.

Captain Jensen and officers remained with the ship for a while to guard against looting and to meet any help that may arrive.

In the next few days, much of the freight aboard was retrieved and sent back to Seattle.

According to local lore, some people’s belongings weren’t so lucky.

An even more severe storm hit the coast on Feb. 3, tearing the ship to pieces. So much for recovering the rest of the vessel and its contents.

On Feb. 9 that year, a radio message reported that masses of floating wreckage believed to be from the Cottage City were being carried away by the tide and found as far north as Chatham Point, 40 km away.

Some of this wreckage reportedly belonged to the Vaudevillians.

Part of the Vaudeville acts involved elaborate costumes, dresses, and all sorts of clownery.

So when these suitcases of fancy and sometimes ridiculous outfits started turning up on Island beaches, they became the talk — and eventually community closet — of the towns.

It’s said that after items washed up on shore, local loggers and townswomen partied through the streets, parading their fantastical Vaudeville finery.

In remote island towns in the 1910s, it’s safe to assume this was the most colourful party of the year.

In 1967, two divers, Fred Rogers and Ed Seaton (not that Mr. Rogers), went on a mission to find what was left of the Cottage City wreckage.

They found remnants, ornamental brass door handles, hinges, portholes, lamp holders and such.

But where the remaining Vaudevillian luggage ended up remains a mystery.

So maybe, check your grandma’s closet. You might find some of this hilarious historical shipwrecked treasure.

Stranger things have happened.