06/07/2012 05:40 EDT | Updated 08/07/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. foundation repatriates historic rescue medal awarded by the U.S. president

TOFINO, B.C. - A gold medal awarded by the U.S. president to a former B.C. man who helped rescue crew from a burning ship off Vancouver Island's west coast in 1899 has been repatriated to Canada.

David Griffiths, executive director of the Tonquin Foundation, a Tofino, B.C.,-based organization dedicated to maritime history, said he received the medal Tuesday, after buying it from a U.K. collector for an undisclosed amount after a month of negotiations.

Weighing 36 grams and measures 36 millimetres in diameter, the medal was dedicated to Nigel L. Campbell, one of six men who rescued crew from the burning schooner Hera Nov, 27, 1899.

Like several of the rescuers, Campbell achieved notoriety later in life, becoming the high sheriff of Buckinghamshire, England, before being knighted by King George V. Another rescuer eventually became premier of British Columbia.

"It just has given me a real personal connection to these people, really sort of brought history to life for me, and hopefully, it will do the same for other people," said Griffiths.

How much the medal cost is a secret for now, said Griffiths, though he noted that it cost more than the $2,000 he initially predicted but substantially less than the $16,000 a U.K. collector paid several years back for a similar medal awarded by the U.S. president for an unrelated rescue.

Key to the medal's repatriation was an anonymous financial donation by a local resident, he added.

Griffiths learned about the medal's existence and began a fundraising drive after he was contacted by a U.K. collector at the end of April.

"We don't take enough care with our provincial history, and this kind of initiative is something that all British Columbians should applaud," said Norman Ruff, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Victoria.

"There's a tendency to forget our past and where we have come from."

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 wield 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,'' stated 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.

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.

He said he's waiting for photocopies of a portrait of Campbell that is held in London's National Portrait Gallery.

Another of the rescuers, Harlan Carey Brewster, became premier of B.C. between Nov. 23, 1916 and March 1, 1918, but at the time was working as a bookkeeper in Clayoquot.

Brewster died in Calgary in the spring of 1918 after becoming ill during a journey to Ottawa.

Ruff called Brewster progressive and wonders what would have happened in the world of B.C. politics had he not died, considering he was succeeded by John Oliver, a populist politician.

"He was much more conservatively minded and he put brakes on some of Brewster's ambitions," said Ruff.

Meantime, Griffiths said the captain of the Hera was convicted of murder for an unrelated incident and sentenced to life in an Oregon prison not long after the rescue, but was eventually pardoned and went on to captain a vessel owned by the U.S. author Jack London.

Griffith said the foundation hopes to put the medal on public display, perhaps at a local resort, until it can find a more permanent home.

"There's five more of them out there somewhere. It would be really wonderful to try and locate them," he said. "They'll certainly be honoured here in the place where they were awarded."

- By Keven Drews in Vancouver