Wreck of lost steamship that sunk with nearly 200 lbs in gold found

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Marine archaeologists claim to have discovered the wreck of a lost steamship that sank along with its cargo of nearly $178,800 in gold — worth some $5million today. The Pacific — a wooden-hulled paddle-steamer — sank after a collision in the dark with the sailing ship Orpheus southwest of Cape Flattery, Washington State on November 4, 1875. Only two of the 275+ passengers and crew survived — making it the most deadly marine disaster of its time to have occurred along the West Coast of the US. At the time of the disaster, the Pacific was sailing a route between Victoria, British Columbia and San Francisco, California — a route chosen in part due the onset of the Gold Rush in British Columbia’s Cassiar Country. In fact, Pacific’s cargo — alongside 2,000 sacks of oats, 300 bales of hops, 250 hides, 11 casks of fut and two cases of opium — also included some 200 lbs of gold. Now, two experts from the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance, Matthew McCauley and Jeff Hummel, believe that they have succeeded in locating the lost steamer.

Northwest Shipwreck Alliance spokesperson Philip Drew said: “The discovery was more of a slow realisation than an a-ha moment.

“The site required close and repeated examination with side scan sonar lines and remotely operated underwater vehicle dives to gather enough data and evidence.

“Jeff Hummel and the team haven’t had much time to take a step back and enjoy the moment yet. The holidays will provide an opportunity for us all to slow down and celebrate.

“We’re also very much connected to the stories of all those who perished on the fateful day in the 1875 which tempers our celebration of this discovery.

“And there’s still years of hard work ahead to excavate the wreck, taking the appropriate care to recover and preserve artefacts.”

According to the experts, the telltale sign that the sunken vessel they have found is the Pacific lies in the discovery of two circular depressions in the seabed a short distance from the rest of the wreck. These are thought to be the steamship’s paddle wheels.

Mr Drew said: “Historical accounts describe the Pacific partially breaking up at the surface, so we expected to find paddle wheels independent from the rest of the ship.

“Sure enough, we were able to image both paddle wheels with sonar and view the uncovered portion of them with the remotely operated vehicle in a nearby debris field.”

Although a judge has granted the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance team exclusive salvage rights to the wreck, they are not making the public her exact location. However, they have revealed that she lies around 23 miles offshore, at a depth of between 1,000–2,000 feet.

This is said to be well beyond the reach of human divers.

Mr Drew added: “For our region of the world — the west coast of the US — the Pacific represents the most deadly maritime disaster in our history.

“We also believe the wreck is in an incredible state of preservation and so we expect and hope that the artefacts we recover will have considerable historical significance.”

The Northwest Shipwreck Alliance is looking to open a museum dedicated to the display of artefacts recovered from the wreck.

However, there will be a window of time in which descendents of the ship’s crew and passengers can assert ownership in court.

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Among those who perished in the sinking of the Pacific were her captain, Jefferson Davis Howell, who commanded a rebel gunboat during the US Civil War and was the brother-in-law of the former Confederate President, Jefferson Davis.

Among other prominent passengers was the merchant and lumberman Sewell Moody, one Captain Otis Parsons, who had just sold off his fleet of river steamers that sailed the Fraser River in British Columbia, and the former Gold Commissioner of Cassiar, John Howe Sullivan.

While official records indicate that 275 people perished in the disaster, the actual number may have been higher — as children were able to sail without a ticket, and reports suggest that a number of people “rushed about” the Pacific, also without tickets”, just before she left her moorings in Victoria.

According to the experts, no human remains have been discovered at the wreck site yet — and, with the strong currents and the water depth, it is unlikely any will, they added.

The Orpheus — the sailing vessel which accidentally steered into the Pacific’s path after her second mate mistook the lights onboard Pacific for that of the Cape Flattery lighthouse — survived the collision, only to run aground the same night on Barclay Sound after making another erroneous course correction involving mistaking another light for that of the Cape Flattery Lighthouse.

Unlike the unfortunate lives on the Pacific, however, the crew of the Orpheus made it ashore, and were rescued by the United States Revenue Cutter Wolcott, which was out looking for survivors from the Pacific.

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