The Ripple Rock Explosion

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First, a bit of background on Ripple Rock itself. This underwater mountain sits at Seymour Narrows along the Discovery Passage in British Columbia. Close to Campbell River, it presented a significant hazard to boats coming through the area.
George Vancouver wrote in his diary in 1792 that it was one of the vilest stretches of water in the entire world.

The Indigenous of the area had a legend that the highest peak of Ripple Rock rose close to the surface centuries ago. Young Indigenous would show off by standing on the rock at low tide as the water was up to their waists. The Indigenous said that the rock vibrated so much under their feet that their cheeks shook.

Named by Captain Richards because of the standing waves that its summits made as the tidal current moved through the straight, it would continue to prey on ships until 1958.

The changing tide would change the elevation between the top of the rock and the water from 10 to 20 feet, creating a bottleneck. Mariners would call it the worst hazard to navigation on the west coast of North America.

Macleans would write of the rock quote:

“Ripple Rock sets up whirlpools, eddies, vertical currents, crosscurrents, combers, rapids, and almost every form of turbulence known to nautical science.”

Twice per day, for 20 to 40 minutes, a slack tide would occur in the Ripple Rock area. The high water slack and the low water slack was the moment of pause between the flood into the ebb tide and vice versa. It was during this time that the narrows were calm and ships had to sail the narrow during the slack time as it was the only time navigation was possible around Ripple Rock.

One man would say in 1921 quote:

“They stand still for hours ineffectually struggling against the current and making no progress whatever. Even at half tide, it is no uncommon thing for a vessel to take an hour and a half to cover three miles of the Narrows. While if the tide is with her, she does it in six or seven minutes.”

During this time, things got busy. Jack Scott, a Vancouver Sun columnist would state quote:

“Seymour Narrows became as busy as Granville Street.”

The first large ship to ever hit the rock was the USS Saranac, which crashed into it in 1875 on its way to Alaska. It is said though that a Russian man-of-war crashed into the rock back when Russia owned Alaska. Records were not kept until 1875.

In 1884, the third and last warship hit the rock. This was the Royal Navy vessel Satellite, but thankfully the crew was able to escape safely.

Midshipman B.M. Chambers wrote of that wreck he was in, quote:

“I recall Satellite steaming up at a speed of 13 knots and getting caught in the swirling torrent of Seymour Narrows like a chip in a gutter. We were swept into the very centre of the pass. I saw the upright waves above Ripple Rock seemingly rush toward us. I felt the ship heel over as her keel caught the top of the rock. For a moment we hung. Then we were free with the loss of forty feet of our false bottom. With that memory in mind I shall never believe that engineers can attack the rock successfully from the surface of the water.”

The letter Chambers, now an admiral, wrote to the Vancouver Province, about the wreck in 1946 helped spur on public support for destroying the rock.

From 1875 until 1958, 20 large ships and 100 small ships were sunk or badly damaged on the rock. It is known that at least 110 people drowned in the accidents caused by the rock.
One such ship was the USS Wachusett, which passed through the narrows during a strong ebb and became caught in an extremely large whirlpool. This caused it to strike heavily on Ripple Rock, losing a large portion of its false keel and splintering heavily.

In 1919, the CPR Steamship Ena hit the rock and sprang a leak, resulting in a distress signal being sent out. Two other ships came in to find the ship was taking on water, but thankfully it did not sink.

In 1927, the Princess Beatrice hit the rock, losing its rudder and having to limp into port. The captain was praised with the Victoria Times Colonist stating quote:

“He kept the big ship, with its hundreds of passengers, safely in the roaring channel until the steamship Cardena, which was nearby, placed a line aboard and towed the rudderless vessel into safety.”

As soon as the first ship hit the rock in the 1800s, it was decided that the rock had to go and an explosion of monumental proportions was needed. One plan had a bridge being built to connect Vancouver Island with Blue Inlet, using the rock as a support but that was abandoned in the 1860s in favour of eventually destroying the rock. In 1929, the Canadian Merchant Service Guild, which represented 1,000 Canadian masters and mates, were urging for the removal of Ripple Rock, calling it a menace to all navigation.

In 1931, a Canadian marine commission recommended removing the rock completely but it would be over a decade until the government gave permission to do so.

The fact that it was not until the Second World War that actual attempts were made to deal with the rock came about because of an argument between Vancouver and Victoria. Those in Victoria fought to preserve the rock so that it could be used as a bridge, while those in Vancouver wanted it destroyed. This would go up to the political level with each side taking the side of their constituents.

It took the United States getting involved and voicing its concern over the safety of its ammunition ships bound for Alaska, and their request that the rock be destroyed.

Regarding the proposal for a bridge, this was widely criticized by boat owners in the area who worried it would impact shipping. Captain C.D. Neroutsos, manager of the BC Coast Steamship Service, stated quote:

“I would like to state that the original move to have Ripple Rock removed was started by the mariners and not by the railroads.”

Capt. Neroutsos was against the bridge as he felt it would impact the growth of passenger boat traffic through that area.

It was estimated that the building of a bridge would cost $12 million, or $226 million today. The removal of Ripple Rock was opposed by many residents on Vancouver Island because it felt it was the only chance they would have for a railroad connection to the rest of the country. Eventually, as new residents moved onto the island and into Vancouver, the desire for a bridge faded.

The first attempt to destroy the rock with explosives was in 1943. Floating drilling barges were tasked with drilling into the rock to blast it into pieces. This approach was abandoned quickly as cables tended to break every 48 hours.

One ship to hit was the William J. Stewart, the Department of Transport’s hydrographic survey ship that had a laboratory on it worth $1 million. Ironically, it was checking the charted contours of Ripple Rock when it struck the rock.

The Vancouver Province stated quote:

“It was as delicious a bit of irony as the ironical sea was ever engineered. No ship in all the world knew the position of Ripple Rock better than the William J. Stewart, or how to avoid its fangs. Yet, through no error of seamanship, she was the ship that suffered.”

In 1945, another attempt was made using two large overhead steel lines that were 3,600 feet long and weighed 11 tons each. These were strung across the narrows and shipping was halted for several hours. Contractors had to drill holes into the rock for explosives.

This was abandoned when only 93 out of 1,500 controlled explosions were successful.

After nearly $1 million was spent in the attempts of the 1940s to deal with the rock, Alphonse Fournier, the Minister of Public Works said in the House of Commons quote:

“I am disgusted with Ripple Rock. Let somebody else deal with it for a change.”

For nearly a decade, the rock would remain, serving as a hazard for the 150,000 passengers who travelled from B.C. to Alaska each year, and the 2,000 freighters that navigated the area carrying cargoes worth $30 million. Then there were the 7,000 tugs, barges and small crafts that had to make it through the Ripple Rock area safely.

Various plans were put forward to deal with the rock from plastering it with an array of mortars, using navy torpedoes or air force blockbusters to even using an atomic bomb to completely vaporize the rock.

Senator G.G. McGeer stated quote:

“If we could put one of those bombs into Ripple Rock and get it in the right place at the right time, there just wouldn’t be any Ripple Rock.”

The National Research Council quickly spoke up regarding the atomic bomb idea, stating that it would create a wall of water 100 feet high that would surge into Vancouver.

In 1953, the National Research Council of Canada commissioned a feasibility study on planting explosive charges underneath the peaks of the rock. Three companies, Northern Construction Company, J.W. Stewart Limited and Boyles Brothers Drilling Company were granted the contract, worth $3 million.
The United Kingdom’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment were very interested in this explosion as it was going to be a very large, non-nuclear, explosion.

From November of 1955 to April of 1958, 75 men working in three shifts built a 500 foot vertical shaft from Maud Island, and a 2,370 foot long horizontal shaft to the base of Ripple Rock. Two more main shafts were built from the twin peaks.

The Victoria Times Colonist reported quote:

“They have driven tunnels under water to points directly below each of the two pinnacles of the sullen menace that squats under the surface of Seymour Narrows threatening every vessel using the narrow, dangerous, tide-torn waters.”

A total of 1,270 metric tons of Nitramex 2H explosives were used. This was 10 times what would have been used for an explosion above water. There were worries by some that it would destroy Campbell River 40 kilometres away, while some worried that a tsunami would hit Japan, or that millions of fish would die. A few people theorized that it would even cause the Big One, an earthquake many in British Columbia have been expecting for years.

In the blast area, 200 people had to be evacuated to ensure they would not be injured. They were told they could return to the area after the explosion had taken place. In nearby Campbell River, every hotel and available room was booked because of the influx of people coming into the area. Also in the community, the power and gas lines were shut off and residents stacked dishes on the floor and took pictures off the walls.

On April 5, 1958 at 9:31 a.m., Dr. Dolmage pressed a button and one-fifth of a second later, the explosion took place. A total of 635,000 metric tons of rock and water were displaced by the explosion. Rocks and debris were thrown 1,000 feet into the air. The blast was large enough that it cleared 45 feet of vertical rock, providing ships with plenty of room to go over. While it was a very large explosion, there was almost no noise as the water muffled the majority of it.

In nearby Campbell River, people in the houses felt the ground shake beneath them but no damage was reported. Then, rain began to fall over the community, which some blamed on the blast. At the University of Alberta’s physics department in Edmonton, three minutes after the blast, they recorded the first wave, which had reflected off the earth’s crust. Further shocks were recorded at regular intervals for the next two minutes. The shock wave from the explosion raised the level of the Earth in Edmonton by one-one hundred thousandth of an inch. The waves were recorded from a pickup truck, using a coil of wire and a suspended magnet placed on the frozen ground to avoid shock waves caused by cars driving along the road.

As for the destructive aspects, there was a brief 25-foot tsunami, and a few fish died, but that was it. The only damage that was reported was to a wall clock at a mining clock at Quadra Island.

The Victoria Times Colonist reported quote:

“Like a veteran performer determined to give his best, in his farewell appearance, Old Man Ripple Rock staged a death scene today that was truly memorable. Out of the fatal, cataclysmic blow came incredible beauty. Hardened newsmen gasped audibly as grey-black design hung for seconds in the sky as though posing for the funeral pictures.”

The RCMP were on hand for the explosion to ensure no one would be anywhere within three miles of the explosion. TV crews and engineers were housed in a bunker 7,000 feet away from the blast. The 75 press representatives had to sign a document releasing the federal government of any damage claims that may result from the blast. They were each given a silver dollar to make the release form a binding document.

In another bunker, Lt. Governor Frank Ross was on hand, along with the federal Public Works minister Howard Green. Rear-Admiral Herbert Rayner and Major General Chris Vokes also watched the blast, as did many other dignitaries.

The explosion is now a National Historic Event and it was seen live on CBC Television coast-to-coast. It was one of the first live coast-to-coast television broadcasts in Canadian history.

The Victoria Times Colonist reported quote:

“TV viewers were unanimous in calling the CBC coverage of one of the greatest jobs of on-the-spot camera work ever seen. The big 25-inch telescope lens brought the blast into thousands of living rooms.”

One entrepreneur began to sell tiny chunks of the rock in a brief flurry of tourist interest in the area. One man nearby who saw the blast was R.D. Merrill. He had first moved to the area in 1885 and that was when he saw Ripple Rock for the first time. He was 89 years old when the blast occurred, destroying the rock he had seen for much of his life.

Captain Henry Hall of the Squamish Queen had the honour of going through the narrows with the first ship since the explosion. He would say quote:

“I made the water out to be 56 feet deep under me but I don’t know how accurate the sounder was because even then, three hours after the blast, the water was still full of big air bubbles that could upset the instruments.”

Today, as many as 20 large cruise ships a day sail past Campbell River during the peak cruise season.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Macleans, Wikipedia, Victoria Daily Times, Nanaimo Daily News, Kingston Whig Standard, Edmonton Journal,

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