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Salvors claim 2023 recovery effort for SS Pacific treasure

Circa 1850 lithograph illustrates the SS “Pacific” at sea, well before it wrecked and sank for the second and final time in 1875.

Image in public domain.

Treasure hunters who recently pinpointed the specific location of the 1875 wreckage of the SS Pacific, which is purported to carry gold in various forms today valued in excess of $5 million in U.S. dollars, are planning to begin salvage efforts sometime in 2023.

The treasure hunters, Jeff Hummel and Matt McCauley, from Rockfish Inc. in Seattle, are also expecting a possible legal battle over the gold from relatives of those aboard the Pacific who lost their lives, even though the pair is already awarded exclusive salvage rights by a federal court in Washington state. Hummel has searched for the wreckage for more than 30 years.

According to The Northwest Shipwreck Alliance website at, “The Pacific Project is a collaboration between Rockfish, Inc. and the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance (NSA). On Nov. 23, 2022, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, Senior U.S. District Judge James L. Robart awarded exclusive salvage rights to the wreck of the SS Pacific to Rockfish, to recover the vessel’s express cargo under contract with the original underwriters based in London. The Northwest Shipwreck Alliance is tasked with preserving and displaying the artifacts in a new museum to be located in the Puget Sound region.”

According to the website, Rockfish Inc. completed 12 expeditions between 2017 and 2022. Each expedition included a crew of six to eight people and used a variety of underwater equipment to search for the ship, including towed side scan sonar, a bottom-towed underwater camera sled, underwater tracking systems and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

Rockfish Inc. first imaged the SS Pacific wreck site during an October 2021 sonar survey, but wasn’t able to return for additional survey until July 2022 because of weather conditions.

The gold

There is speculation and conflicting reports as to the form and value of the gold that was being transported aboard the Pacific; likely the majority was in gold dust, but it may have included coins as well as bars.

Researcher and writer Dan Owens related to Coin World that, likely, gold dust was brought aboard the steamship from the British Columbia gold fields by miners on their winter voyage home.

Owens explains that newspaper accounts from the period indicate a total value then of the gold at $79,220 — $28,336 worth from the Bank of British North America, $21,245 from the Bank of British Columbia, and $29,639 linked to Francis Garesche, a banker and Wells Fargo agent who was one of the fatalities in the Pacific’s sinking.

But a conflicting account asserts that the treasure amounted to $78,801 for the banks and $100,000 in private hands.

Contemporary Northwest newspapers recounted that Wells, Fargo & Co. had a gold dust shipment onboard destined for the San Francisco Mint, according to Owens.

“At least one wealthy passenger reportedly carried a considerable amount of money in gold notes and drafts which may have been left behind in the purser’s safe,” according to Owens.

Owens believes that because the Bank of British North America had its owner assay office in Victoria, British Columbia, that suggests the possibility of gold bars, too.

The wreck

The 1875 wreck of the SS Pacific was the deadliest maritime disaster in West Coast history, with the lives of all but two persons on board lost.

The SS Pacific — a sidewheel steamship built in 1850 in New York specifically for the California Gold Rush — collided off the coast of Washington state, 40 miles southwest of Cape Flattery, on Nov. 4, 1875, with SV [Sailing Vessel] Orpheus.

While the Pacific foundered within 20 minutes of the collision and disappeared below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, Orpheus continued on course, only to run aground the following day after mistaking the Cape Beale Lighthouse on Vancouver Island for the beacon on Tatoosh Island.

Newspapers of the period differed in the number of people who perished, but the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service, established by Congress in 1871, licensed the Pacific to carry 203 passengers — 115 in first class, 88 in second, and 52 crew members. One newspaper report suggests that from 250 to 275 people were aboard the Pacific at the time of its sinking.

The 876-ton, wooden-hulled Pacific was en route to San Francisco from Victoria, British Columbia, at the time of the collision, the second in its short life.

In its first accident, July 18, 1861, under the ownership of the Merchants Accommodation Line, the Pacific was heading down the Columbia River between Portland and Astoria in Oregon when it sank after striking Coffin Rock in thick fog.

The Pacific was raised, delivered to San Francisco for repairs, refurbished, and continued in service until retirement in 1872, when it was left to rot along the mudflats of San Francisco Bay.

However, according to — the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history — “When gold was discovered on the Stikine River in the Cassier District of northern British Columbia in the early 1870s, the Pacific, along with every old packet ship that could float, was resurrected to carry miners and speculators to Canada. The ship was purchased in January 1875 from the Pacific Mail Line by the Goodall, Nelson and Perkins Steamship Company of San Francisco and supposedly reconditioned at a cost of $40,000. The actual extent of its restoration was mostly cosmetic, but the Pacific was proclaimed as completely rebuilt and entirely seaworthy ... Her new captain was Jefferson Davis Howell, a veteran of the Civil War and brother-in-law of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States [of America].”

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