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Private Search Team Finds Long-Lost Wreck of Sidewheeler SS Pacific

The oceangoing steamer is believed to have 200 pounds of gold in her holds

SS Pacific
Historical illustration of SS Pacific (Public domain)

Published Dec 12, 2022 5:28 PM by The Maritime Executive

A team of private-sector explorers have discovered the wreck of the lost paddlewheel steamer SS Pacific, which went down near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 1875. 

On November 4, 1875, SS Pacific got under way from Victoria, British Columbia, bound for San Francisco on a regular run with an estimated 275-400 people on board. She was carrying unticked passengers, including children, and the precise count is not known. Among those aboard were a prominent timber baron, Sewell Moody, and Captain Otis Parsons, owner of a fleet of steamers on Canada' s Fraser River. She also had an assortment of commercial cargo, including 200 pounds of gold from B.C.'s mining boom.

As Pacific rounded Cape Flattery, she encountered the 1,000-tonne sailing vessel Orpheus, which was headed inbound for Nanaimo. At about 2130, in rain and darkness, the mate aboard Orpheus mistook Pacific's lights for the lighthouse at Cape Flattery. He turned Orpheus to port and cut across Pacific's bow, and the steamer struck Orpheus on the starboard side. It was a glancing impact, and Pacific raked down the length of the sailing ship's hull. 

Pacific's crew initially thought that their vessel was unharmed by the collision, but within a few minutes, the vessel began to list to port. The passengers made for the lifeboats in a rush, and within an hour, the ship capsized and slipped below. All survivors who made it off the ship went into the water, and all but two died of hypothermia or drowned in the hours that followed. Passenger Henry F. Jelly and ship's quartermaster Neil Henley managed to stay afloat on debris for several days after the collision, and they survived the cold wet weather long enough to be rescued by passing vessels. 

The long-lost wreck of the Pacific has inspired treasure hunters for decades with the promise of millions of dollars' worth of gold. Nearly 150 years after the sinking, Seattle-based entrepreneurs Jeff Hummel and Matt McCauley say that their team has located the ship's remains, and they have secured a court order for salvage rights. 

Their firm - Rockfish Inc. - found the Pacific through a stroke of luck and analytical ingenuity. Local fishermen happened to trawl up coal every now and again at a site off Cape Flattery, and Rockfish found out and had a sample analyzed in a lab. It turned out to match up with the mine that supplied Pacific's bunkering coal. After that lucky discovery, it took a painstaking sidescan-sonar survey process, making multiple passes and revisiting promising sites to narrow down the list. The decisive moment came when they located two round depressions in the sediment, which turned out to be the steamer's paddlewheels. An ROV survey confirmed the wreck's identity. 

Company director Jeff Hummel told Seattle's KIRO radio station that the wreck is an "absolute time capsule" in excellent condition, and that the team expects to find lots of well-preserved historical artifacts. The team has plans to recover items from the ship and put them on display at a museum in Seattle; they will also engage with descendants of the vessel's lost passengers and crew, who may have legal rights to some artifacts.