Hundreds killed and millions in gold lost. Can WA’s most tragic shipwreck be raised?
Sun., March 19, 2023
Some 20 miles off the farthest reaches of Washington’s coast lies a shipwreck that killed hundreds of people and sent millions of dollars of gold to the cold depths of the Pacific Ocean.
Exactly where is a closely kept secret.
Now, two men who claim to have found the remains of the SS Pacific, a steamship that sank on Nov. 5, 1875, are planning to salvage the ship and display its artifacts in a proposed museum.
On Thursday, Matt McCauley and Jeff Hummel will present their research, findings and plans during a talk at the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma.
Sailing from Victoria, B.C., to San Francisco, the Pacific sank with at least 325 passengers and crew. Only two survived.
Recently, the wreck was found by the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance. The nonprofit organization was founded by McCauley and Hummel. The pair, both 58, began salvaging underwater wrecks while they were still in high school.
The 225-foot-long Pacific was launched in 1850 in New York, where it was built for $100,000. The steam-powered ship had two side wheels that provided propulsion.
Carrying both cargo and passengers, the ship had a storied history. It set a speed record on its inaugural run and was soon purchased by New York business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. In an era before the construction of the Panama Canal, the Pacific served both the Chagres (Panama)-New Orleans and Nicaragua-San Francisco routes.
Tragedy seemed to haunt the ship. In 1855, 45 passengers died from cholera they picked up while transiting across Nicaragua. In 1861, the ship was pushed off course by strong winds and sank in the Columbia River on its way from San Francisco to Astoria, Oregon – an area called the graveyard of the Pacific due to its numerous shipwrecks.
The ship was soon raised, repaired and put back to work. In 1875, the ship was purchased by its final owner and put on the Puget Sound-San Francisco run.
Lost in fog
On Nov. 3, 1875, the Pacific left Tacoma filled with hops and bound for Seattle and other stops before making its last port of call at Victoria on Nov. 4. It was captained by Jeff Howell, a well-known skipper in Tacoma, according to McCauley.
“He was somebody that was liked at every port at which the vessel stopped, so (his death) was a big blow to the folks in Tacoma,” he said.
In Victoria, several miners returning from northern gold fields boarded. The ship was carrying millions in gold in the form of coins, bars and gold dust. The Pacific had been designed for the California Gold Rush of 1849 and was equipped with a strong room.
It set out for the ocean via the Strait of Juan de Fuca and turned south about 12 miles off Cape Flattery.
Meanwhile, the clipper SV Orpheus was headed north. While that ship’s captain was below checking maps, its crew spotted the Pacific’s masthead light but mistook it for the Cape Flattery lighthouse. The Orpheus turned in front of the Pacific.
The ships collided, with the Pacific’s bow striking the hull of the Orpheus in three locations. The ships continued in their general directions. Because the Orpheus had only been slightly damaged its crew surmised the Pacific also had sustained light damage.
But the Pacific had been fatally struck.
“I woke up with the crash,” said Neil Henly, 21, the Pacific’s quartermaster and one of the two survivors. “Jumped out of my bunk, the water rushing through the bow; saw all hands rush on the hurricane deck … the ship fell into the trough of the sea and became unmanageable, the fires being extinguished; all was confusion, the passengers crowding into the boats which the officers and crew were trying to clear away.”
Adding to the disaster, the crew had filled some of the lifeboats with water in an attempt to keep the ship on an even keel.
“The boat I was near was partly full of water,” recalled the ship’s other survivor, passenger Henry Jelly, 22. “I think it was about an hour from the time the steamer struck up to the time when she listed to port so much that the port boat was let into the water and cut loose from the davits.”
Jelly’s lifeboat soon capsized.
“I crawled up on the bottom of the boat and helped several others up with me … I think about all the ladies were in our boat, and when she upset, they all fell into the water and, I fear, they were all drowned.”
Jelly survived by lashing himself to the wreckage of the pilot house. He was picked up the next day and Henly the day after by passing ships.
With at least 325 lives lost, it became the worst maritime disaster on the West Coast. Hummel said accounts put the total lost as high as 500, mainly from passengers who rushed aboard without tickets when the boat left Victoria.
Washington was over a decade away from becoming a state when the ship sank.
“This was a very massive tragedy when you consider the relatively low population of B.C. and the Washington territory at that time,” McCauley said.
“It was a very important vessel for Tacoma, as it was for Seattle and some of the area waypoints on the Sound,” McCauley said.
The 1870s were a heady time for Tacoma. In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad chose the young city to be its western transcontinental terminus and built its headquarters there in early 1875.
“But it was still really important that it had the steamboat connection with San Francisco, which was basically the civilized world to the people in Washington Territory at that time,” he said. “Seattle had a population of under 2,000 residents at that time and Tacoma’s was even smaller.”
The city itself was incorporated on Nov. 12, 1875 – a little over a week after the Pacific’s disaster.
Is it the Pacific?
Several expeditions beginning in 1985 have attempted to locate the Pacific. All failed. Hummel’s salvage company, Rockfish, Inc., calculated the location of the wreck using what information they had: heading, speed, currents, timing. That produced a search field of 338 square miles – a dauntingly large area .
A crucial clue to the ship’s location came from commercial fishermen. Several had recovered chunks of coal in their nets. Testing identified the coal as likely from the ship’s last owners, Goodall, Nelson and Perkins. That narrowed the search field to a manageable 2 square miles.
Using underwater equipment, Rockfish searched for the wreck over five years. In 2021, the wreck was spotted using sonar imaging but wasn’t identified until 2022.
Identifying shipwrecks can be tricky. But eventually, imaging equipment found a hull-like depression and two nearby circular depressions that were likely from the ship and its paddle wheels. Archeologists with the team speculate that the wood wheels are still intact below the muddy seafloor.
Further expeditions recovered wood and copper plating and fire bricks. They also identified steam pipes.
“If you look at the preponderance of evidence, it’s overwhelming,” Hummel said. “The odds that it’s not the Pacific are one in a million.”
The finds were convincing enough for the salvagers to file legal rights in U.S. District Court to the submerged area surrounding the likely vessel. U.S. District Court Judge James L. Robart issued an order restricting competing salvagers from entering this area.
The team is tight-lipped on specifics.
“There are two things we never tell people,” Hummel said. “One is exactly how far from shore it is and exactly how deep it is.”
The most Hummel would offer is between 20 and 27 miles from shore and between 1,000 and 2,000 feet deep.
Maritime law allows discoverers of lost shipwrecks to recover whatever is salvageable once agreements from any legal owners are located and satisfied, which has already begun.
It’s unlikely any human remains are at the site. Like those on the Titanic, they’ve long since decomposed. Many of the Pacific’s victims washed ashore in British Columbia in the days after the sinking.
McCauley and Hummel met at Mercer Island High School. While in school the pair salvaged the remains of a WWII naval dive bomber from Lake Washington.
The U.S. Navy sued them in 1984, but the pair won and went on to salvage four more WWII-era naval combat aircraft from the lake in 1987.
Hummel and McCauley went their separate ways, with McCauley pursuing SCUBA diving, local history and writing. Hummel went on to become an expert in marine navigation systems.
Now, thy are reunited and hope to begin salvaging the Pacific in 2025.
The men won’t speculate on the value of the gold, but records suggest it would be at least several million dollars worth. Legal precedent allows salvagers to 92% of the gold they find, with the rest going to the ship’s underwriters.
They hope to display their finds in a future museum, the location and size of which have not been determined. The Pacific’s finds will play a central role. They hope to recover the paddle wheels, boilers, steam plant and personal effects.
“You’d literally be able to go through people’s steamer trunks and things like that,” Hummel said. One of the items on their list: the earliest known pair of Levi jeans. The clothing was introduced in 1873 and was popular with miners.
They’ve spent $2.1 million looking for the shipwreck and estimate they’ll spend another $6-8 million to salvage it. It’s not the gold they might find that drives them, they said.
“For me, it’s the ability to touch the past,” Hummel said. “We’re looking at things and touching things that haven’t been looked at or touched in almost 150 years.”
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