On November 4, 1875, the Pacific, a wooden sidewheel steamer, was carrying 52 crew members, about 225 passengers, 300 bales of hops, 2,000 sacks of oats, two cases of opium, 280 tons of coal from Puget Sound, about 30 tons of other miscellaneous cargo and approximately 200 pounds of gold -- worth nearly $178,800 then and about $5 million today – when it left Victoria, British Columbia … and was never seen again. Well, except for a brief moment when it collided with the sailing ship Orpheus off the coast of Cape Flattery, Washington state. Only two people survived from the Pacific in what is still considered one of the deadliest maritime disasters in the history of the Pacific Northwest. The ship and its cargo have been searched for ever since without success … until this week when it was announced the wreckage of the Pacific has been located about 23 miles offshore at a depth of between 1,000 and 2,000 feet. Will the gold be recovered? Will we finally learn more about the mysterious crew, which included the brother-in-law of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and some equally mysterious passengers – including the 173 crew members of another shipwreck and 41 unidentified "Chinamen”?
“Long will be remembered the year 1875, when Death, clad in all his hideousness, rode the wave ; and, while the restless sea has supplied Northwestern history with many pitiful tales of disaster, this fatal year has never been equaled in the number of lives and amount of property sacrificed. No greater calamity was ever visited on the people of this Coast than the loss of the steamship Pacific…“
– Edgar Wilson Wright, Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (1895)
The wreck of the Pacific was discovered by The Pacific Project, a collaboration between Rockfish, Inc. and the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance (NSA), after making twelve expeditions between 2017 and 2022 using towed side scan sonar, a bottom-towed underwater camera sled, underwater tracking systems and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). However, Jeff Hummel, the president of Rockfish, has been searching for the Pacific for more than 30 years. According to the NDA website, the first sonar image of the Pacific wreck was picked up in an October 2021 sonar survey but bad weather prevented the team from returning to the location until July 2022. One ROV had a manipulator arm which managed to delicately grasp and recover what turned out to be wood samples from the main portion of the wreck. After examining over 160,000 square meters of the surrounding area in detail with ROVs, the identity of the Pacific wreck site was confirmed. (Photos of the ship from 1875 can be seen here. and photos from the wreck can be seen here.)
“Historical accounts describe the Pacific partly splitting up on the surface, so we expected to find paddle wheels independent of the rest of the ship. Sure enough, we were able to image both paddle wheels with sonar and see the bare portion of them with the remotely operated vehicle in a nearby debris field."
Northwest Shipwreck Alliance spokesman Philip Drew said in an interview that “The discovery was more of a slow realization than a moment of surprise.” Fortunately, there were two survivors from the Pacific - Neil Henley, the ship's quartermaster, and Henry F. Jelly of Port Stanley, Ontario, a passenger – and some crew members from the other ship who were able to recreate some of what happened before and after the Pacific collided with the Orpheus. Captain Charles Sawyer of the Orpheus was carrying a load of coal in a fine rain at 9:30 pm and had gone below to check his charts for the location of a lighthouse. The second mate who was in command on deck thought he saw the Cape Flattery lighthouse but instead it was the Pacific and he mistakenly turned his ship right in front of the steamer. The Pacific hit Orpheus near her bow on her starboard side at an angle. Captain Sawyer prepared for the worst but soon realized the damage to his ship was far from fatal and eventually continued on course. However, there was no sign of the Pacific and the crew assumed it had continued on as well.
“…I woke up with the crash. 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…”
– Neil Henly
Henley and Jelly were in their bunks at the time of the collision. Jelly said the lifeboats were partly filled with water and many of the passengers fell and drowned as the boats turned over. Jelly survived by holding on to wreckage and some life preservers – a man who initially survived with him drowned. The ship Messenger picked up Jelly the second day after the sinking and Henry was picked up by the USRC Oliver Wolcott a day later. According to the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance, it was later revealed that the Pacific had boats for only 160 persons; that there were only three men on watch, including the helmsman; that her men were untrained and inexperienced. The Orpheus was found guilty of not keeping to her course and of not making sufficient effort to render all possible help.
That verdict was no consolation to the dead. That list included Captain Jefferson Davis Howell, the brother-in-law of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Howell was only 34 year and many thought he used his connections to become a captain. He studied at the US Naval Academy prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War and commanded a gunboat for the Confederate Navy. It was difficult to determine the names of the passengers since some boarded in Victoria, others were from Puget Sound ports, and an unknown number of passengers rushed onto the ship without tickets as she left the dock in Victoria. Children sailed for free and were often not listed on the passenger manifest. Some well known passengers were Captain Otis Parsons, who had just sold off his fleet of Fraser River steamers, and J.H. Sullivan, who had been Gold Commissioner of the Cassiar mining district. Also on board were 173 crew members of the USS Saranac, a U.S. Navy sloop of war that fought against Captain Howell’s Confederate Navy and was wrecked in Seymour Narrows, an area of strong tidal currents in the Discovery Passage in British Columbia. There were also gold miners going home with their gold and 41 unidentified "Chinamen". Chinese workers began immigrating to the United States in 1849 to work as gold miners. Some worked for themselves but those who worked for other miners were paid less, worked longer hours and worked more dangerous jobs. Their treatment by the white miners is reflected in how they were listed on the manifest.
"We believe the wreck to be in a state of incredible preservation and hope to find a wide variety of artifacts from bottles of wine to leather boots to wool clothing. There are records of the Express Cargo on board including gold from the Cassiar Mining District of northern British Columbia. There's still years of hard work ahead to excavate the wreck, taking the appropriate care to recover and preserve artifacts. Stay tuned!"
Phil Drew of the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance says the location of the wreckage is secret to protect the cargo – especially that $5 million worth of gold. Rockfish, Inc has been granted sole salvaging rights for the wreck and recovery is expected to begin in 2023.
One wrong turn created one of the worst disasters in the waters of the Pacific Northwest. Neglect and carelessness killed nearly 300 people. No amount of gold can change that.