US Coins

Shipwreck salvage operations planned for SS 'Pacific'

Drawing commissioned in 1851 illustrates what the SS “Pacific” looked like.

Image in the public domain.

Collaborative shipwreck salvage operations are moving forward with plans to resurrect treasure from the SS Pacific, which sank Nov. 4, 1875, off the coast of Cape Flattery, Washington, after colliding with the clipper SV Orpheus.

The collision was the worst maritime disaster on the West Coast, claiming the lives of more than 275 passengers and roughly 50 crewmen aboard the Pacific, with only two survivors.

The Pacific was licensed to carry 203 passengers, 115 in first class and 88 in second class, and had a crew of 52.

Afterward, the morning of Nov. 5, 1875, the Orpheus ran aground on Tzartus Island, in Barkley Sound, Vancouver Island.

While there were no casualties aboard the Orpheus, the vessel itself was lost.

At the time of the collision between the two vessels, the SS Pacific’s manifest claimed it was carrying $79,220 worth of gold at 1875 values — $28,336 belonging to the Bank of British North America, $21,245 from the Bank of British Columbia, and $29,639 belonging to Francis Garesche, a banker and Wells Fargo agent who was among the fatalities.

The value of the cargo is assessed  in U.S. dollars today at roughly $5 million.

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

Owens explains that 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 aboard 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 the location of the Bank of British North America assay office in Victoria, British Columbia, suggests the possibility of gold bars among the items lost.

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).

After pinpointing the location of the Pacific, the research vessel SeaBlazer employed to locate the SS Pacific underwent extensive retrofitting before heading out in September to begin salvage efforts.

According to Northwest Shipwreck Alliance officials, “the next phase of explorations focuses on better understanding the wreck site and preparing for the process of artifact recovery.

“This includes metal detection of the ocean floor, sonar scans and mapping in grid patterns to better identify what is in the debris field, an area about the size of three football fields that surround the actual shipwreck. It is thought that many of the artifacts aboard may have sunk before the ship did and now lay in this separate search region.

Further, “our plans now include at least one major expedition to further pinpoint the areas where artifacts might be more easily excavated....”

More significant expeditions to recover artifacts and treasure are anticipated for calendar year 2024.

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