Doom, “death clad in all its hideousness” rode the decks of the steamer Pacific on its voyage in the fall of 1875, said James A. Gibbe in his book “Shipwrecks of the Pacific …
Doom, “death clad in all its hideousness” rode the decks of the steamer Pacific on its voyage in the fall of 1875, said James A. Gibbe in his book “Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast.”
Wrecked and sunk off the coast of Neah Bay with her Gold Rush bounty – $10 million worth of gold – the fate that befell her is considered to this day one of the worst maritime disasters in West Coast history.
For nearly 150 years, the Pacific remained lost, vanished beneath her namesake waters despite countless attempts to locate–until now.
Jeff Hummel has done the impossible: he found her.
Hummel, 59, may very well be the closest thing to a real-life Indiana Jones; in 1983, he discovered a World War II airplane in the depths of Lake Washington. He and his friend Matt McCauley recovered it, sparking a lawsuit from the Navy itself; they sued him for the rights to the aircraft. The 20-year-old found himself in court – US v. Hummel, et. al – and prevailed.
That was just the beginning of Hummel’s adventures. He now can boast 30-plus years devoted to one thing and one thing only: finding the Pacific.
The Pacific was built in 1850 by William H. Brown of New York. Brown was well known for building fast and seaworthy yachts, paddleboats, and steamers. She was a sight to behold; 876 tons, 223 feet long, and 33 feet across the beam. Her maiden voyage set a speed record – 360 miles in 24 hours.
The looming tragedy was preceded by a smaller disaster. In 1861, the ship was en route from Portland to Astoria, Oregon when she struck Coffin Rock in the Columbia River and sank. She was raised with difficulty and pumped out by a fire truck brought down the river by another steamer.
The Pacific was repaired in San Francisco and dubbed to be seaworthy despite accounts of sailors being able to “scoop rotten wood out of her hull with shovels.” She made several more runs before retirement to the San Francisco Bay mudflats.
Retirement did not last long. As the Gold Rush craze swept through the country, any steamer available was called into service to carry miners to the Canadian goldfields.
She was purchased by Goodall, Nelson, and Perkins Co. and put on the San Francisco-Portland-Puget Sound run.
At 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 4, 1875, the Pacific departed from Victoria, BC with about 50 crew and, though records say 275 passengers, it was likely many more; Chinese laborers and other undocumented people scrambled onboard at the last minute.
Besides the gold, cargo included 2,000 sacks of oats, 300 bales of hops, 261 animal hides, 11 casks of furs, 31 barrels of cranberries, 10 cords of wood bolts, 280 tons of coal, 18 tons of general merchandise, six horses, two buggies, two cases of opium and a strongbox containing $79,200 in cash.
Her captain was Jefferson Davis Howell, a veteran of the Civil War and brother-in-law of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States.
A fresh wind blew from the south, stirring up a heavy swell as the Pacific made her way through the Strait of Juan de Fuca toward the ocean, bound for San Francisco.
As night fell, it became overcast, and “profoundly dark.” The Pacific was running without port and starboard lights; only the masthead light was visible. There were only three crewmen on duty – the third mate, a helmsman, and a lookout – all of them inexperienced.
The vessel, exceeding personnel capacity, was listing heavily to starboard. Howell ordered two port-side lifeboats be filled with water to set her back on an even keel.
Around 10 p.m., 40 miles southwest of Cape Flattery, the passengers felt a jolt.
“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…all was confusion,” said quartermaster Neil Henley in the inquisition that took place post-wreck.
The Pacific had collided with the S/V Orpheus, a 1,200-ton, 200-foot sailing vessel commanded by Captain Charles A. Sawyer.
The Orpheus crew had seen the masthead light of the Pacific and mistakenly identified it as the light at Cape Flattery. The crew changed course while the captain was below deck and crossed directly in front of the Pacific. The Pacific crew did not see Orpheus until she was straight ahead. They reversed engines and blew the steam whistle in warning, but it was too late; the steamer’s bow struck the Orpheus “just aft of the main hatch” and the two vessels scraped along each other, breaking 40 feet of rail and carrying away the chain plates and most of the rigging on the Orpheus’s starboard side.
Sawyer’s wife witnessed the entire incident on deck. Furious, she tried to board the Pacific, but Sawyer restrained her.
Neither captain realized how dire the damage was at first. They sailed away from each other in opposite directions. But within 20 minutes, the Pacific was sinking fast; the wooden hull had been breached, and the ship was rapidly filling with water.
“The ship fell into the trough of the sea and became unmanageable, the fires being extinguished; the passengers crowding into the boats while the officers and crew were trying to clear away…” Henley said.
As the lifeboats were already partially filled with water, disaster ensued.
Henry Jelley, a 22-year-old passenger, recalled the ghastly experience.
“I was in this boat which, when it touched the water, began to fill and turn over. I crawled up on the bottom of the boat and helped several others up with me…I think about all the ladies who were in our boat. [When] she was upset, they all fell into the water.”
Jelley and four men managed to climb onto the bottom of the boat and could only watch as the women, weighted down by their heavy clothing, drowned.
CONNECTIONS TO PORT TOWNSEND
Jelley and Henley were the only two survivors.
Jelley climbed aboard the wreckage of the pilot house with another man.
“Next morning we got some life preservers floating near the house, and with their ropes lashed myself and my comrade on to the house,” Jelley recalled.
“I and my comrade were on the top of the pilot house all of [Nov. 5] until about 4 p.m., when he died and I cut him loose; the sea was running very high all day, and I think my comrade was drowned by the waves washing over him, not being strong enough to hold his head up and the waves constantly washing over us…”
By daybreak the next day, Jelley’s makeshift raft had drifted into the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Around 10 a.m. a lookout on the bark Messenger spotted him and rescued him. He was taken to Port Townsend. It was there that the calamity was first learned about. Immediately, the revenue cutter Oliver Wolcott was dispatched to search the wreckage.
Meanwhile, Henley had been adrift for nearly 80 hours on the remains of the hurricane deck, watching one by one the captain and his other companions died of exposure and were washed off into the sea.
The Oliver Wolcott rescued him. She then sailed up the coast and located the crew of the Orpheus, who had run aground and were “patiently awaiting rescue.”
The cutter brought Sawyer, his family, the crew, and Henley back to Port Townsend.
The inquest was held in Vancouver; the Orpheus was found guilty of not keeping her course, as well as not supplying adequate help. The Pacific was found guilty of only carrying enough lifeboats for 160 people, and that the night of the wreck, they did not have sufficiently trained crewmen on watch (and too few at that).
Sawyer lived out his days in Port Townsend, in the mansard-roofed house to the right of the Bell Tower. As he aged, it is said he grew increasingly melancholy, preoccupied with the tragedy. According to contributing writer James Hermanson in a 1994 Leader article, he was often heard saying, “If only I had known…”or “Is that the whistle of the Pacific?”
No one was able to locate the Pacific after it sank. For over a century, it went forgotten. In 1985, the first known attempts to find it were made.
Hummel’s search became a race. His former partner gave up and went into business with a rival expedition.
“They were only 40 miles from the wreckage, but thankfully, they missed it,” Hummel said.
“There were so many questions, so many variables,” he explained when The Leader asked why it was so difficult to locate.
He listed off examples: How did the currents affect the vessel? What is the range of possible speeds? There are witness statements before and after the [Orpheus’s] turn [at Cape Flattery], but when was the fateful turn actually made?
Ultimately, Hummel explained there were two equations that had to match: the vessel’s southern course, and the northward drift of the debris and wreckage.
“How far offshore could the wreckage be to still end up in the Strait?” He said.
There was no way to know for sure the exact details regarding intended course, departure time, speed, headings, wind speed, etc. but Hummel and his team were able to determine a probable range for each. From there, they were able to narrow down the search area significantly.
Hummel formed Rockfish, Inc., a corporation under the guise of a fishing company (to divert his competition) and completed 12 expeditions between 2017 and 2022. Each expedition used a variety of underwater equipment including towed side-scan sonar, a bottom-towed underwater camera sled, tracking systems, and remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) designed by Hummel himself.
Ultimately, Hummel’s discovery boiled down to plain and simple detective work. He interviewed several commercial fishermen who shared similar experiences of finding coal in their nets when fishing off the coast. Hummel had the coal chemically analyzed and found that it was from a mine owned by Goodall, Nelson, and Perkins, the company that owned the Pacific.
“The coal was the ticket,” Hummel said.
Because of it, he was able to narrow down the search area to only two square miles.
“And then…just like that. There she was,” Hummel recalled, when they first confirmed the wreckage site in July 2022.
Their ROVs pulled up wood samples and a portion of firebrick. Using sonar, they were then able to locate parts of the steam machinery, such as the paddle wheel.
Hummel explained that because of the preserving qualities of the clay soil, the artifacts are all in good condition. And there are a lot of them; pickled food, clothing, all remnants of the Gold Rush.
“There could even be the earliest surviving pair of Levi’s jeans onboard,” Hummel said.
When asked how he felt in the moment he knew, he laughed. “A lot of people ask me that,” he said.
“I felt nothing. Just satisfied, but mostly in shock that these 30 years I’d spent devoted to the Pacific came to an end. And then, of course, the thought popped into my head: ‘What next?’”
“Our plans now include at least one major expedition to further pinpoint the areas where artifacts might be more easily excavated,” he went on to explain in a newsletter.
According to Northwest Ship Alliance’s website, the exact location of the wreck site is currently proprietary and will not be released at this time.
Senior US District Judge James L. Robart of the US District Court for the Western District of Washington issued an order restricting competing salvors from entering this area.