05/06/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 07/05/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. foundation wants to repatriate historic rescue medal from 1899

VANCOUVER - Braving strong winds and a terrible November sea, six Vancouver Island men rowed out to a U.S. schooner burning off what is now Tofino, B.C., and rescued its crew from almost certain death.

The drama almost 113 years ago earned the men medals from the president of the United States, but the act of heroism has been largely forgotten. Until now.

One of the medals has surfaced in the United Kingdom, and a Tofino-based foundation is scrambling to raise the funds to purchase the medal and repatriate it to Canada.

"To me it's almost sort of a litmus test of how people do view their heritage around here," said David Griffiths, executive director of the Tonquin Foundation.

Griffiths fears if the medal is not purchased and repatriated, it could end up being sold for scrap.

Adding prominence to this sea saga, though, are the positions two of the rescuers later achieved in their lives. One became the first Liberal premier of B.C., and another became the high sheriff of Buckinghamshire, England, and was knighted by King George V.

The Hera, a three-mast schooner, was built in Boston, Mass., in 1869, and spent her first 30 years sailing between San Francisco, Calif., and Australia, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., and worked in the Bering Sea cod fishery.

She departed Seattle, Wash., for Honolulu on Nov. 18, 1899, loaded with grain, pianos, 1,800 barrels of lime, a knocked-down school house and 60,000 quart bottles of the Seattle Malting and Brewing Company's Rainier beer.

As the Hera crept past Cape Flattery, a southwester caught the ship and pushed her towards Vancouver Island.

The vessel took on water. The barrels holding lime burst and the lime began to smolder.

According to 1899 accounts in the Victoria Daily Colonist, F. Jacobsen, F. Stanley Spain, Nigel L. Campbell, Thomas Carr, S. Torgesen and a Mr. Brewster decided to row out to the ship, which was by then in Clayoquot Sound, "although there was a terrible sea running."

The accounts, archived on the website Victoria's Victoria, state the ship's captain, its owner and his daughter and two men boarded a boat and left the others on board to perish.

Upon meeting the six desperate crew, the rescuers were forced to weild axes to ensure a safe and orderly rescue into the rowboat, according to the newspaper.

"She is one mass of raging flame, and as it is a very black night, the entire harbour is lit up," states an account.

The ship sank, and months later U.S. officials announced they would present a gold life-saving medal to each of the rescuers.

The wreck was discovered in December 1974 by Tofino diver Rod Palm after a crab fisherman complained that one of his traps got caught on the ocean's bottom. The trap, said the fisherman, was rust-stained once recovered, setting of the search for the wreck.

Not long after, the Hera was declared B.C.'s first protected underwater heritage site.

But the medals went forgotten.

Griffiths said he was contacted by the U.K. collector at the end of April who had one of them.

It weighs weighs 36 grams and measures 36 millimetres in diameter. "Presented by the President of the United States," is inscribed on the head of the medal, along with a Liberty face.

Written on the tail side of the medal is "To Nigel L. Campbell in recognition of his heroic services in effecting the rescue of five men from the wreck of the American schooner, Hera, November 27, 1899."

Griffiths said his preliminary research indicates Campbell became the high sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1937, was knighted by King George V and died in 1948.

According to its website, London's National Portrait Gallery has a portrait of Campbell.

Griffiths said he has no idea where the other medals might be.

Ken Gibson, a long-time Tofino resident who found the long-forgotten wintering quarters of U.S. fur trader Robert Gray in 1966, said little is known locally of the rescuers or their heroics.

"It was just another ship wreck," said Gibson.

Norman Ruff, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Victoria, said the Mr. Brewster noted in the newspaper account from the time was in fact, Harlan Carey Brewster, premier of B.C. between Nov. 23, 1916 and March 1, 1918.

At the time of the rescue, Brewster was working as a bookkeeper in Clayoquot.

"He got a medal from the United States Congress, a gold medal, and another medal from the Royal Humane Society," said Ruff.

Brewster later became involved in the fish-canning industry, before getting involved in politics and becoming the first Liberal premier of B.C., said Ruff.

He died in Calgary in the spring of 1918 after becoming ill while on his way to Ottawa.

Griffiths said if he can purchase the Campbell medal, it would come under the control of the Tonquin Foundation and go on public display, possibly in the Canadian Coast Guard's Tofino office to celebrate the agency's 50th anniversary this year.

"Those six fellows that went out on that lifeboat, which is basically the precursor of the Tofino lifeboat, is quite the heroic act that they did," he said.

Griffiths said several Tofino-area residents have already pledged money to the fundraising effort.