13th time lucky: tragic Gold Rush shipwreck located

Stern view of the paddle-steamer Pacific (Edward Muybridge / NSA)
Stern view of the 19th-century paddle-steamer Pacific (Edward Muybridge / NSA)

The Pacific, a mid-19th-century Gold Rush paddle-steamer described as the West Coast’s “most elusive and sought-after major shipwreck”, has been located on a determined salvor’s 13th expedition – and the company has just been granted exclusive rights to recover the ship’s contents.

Rockfish was set up in 2016 specifically to track down the 64m side-wheel steamer, which sank off Washington state on 4 November, 1875. She had collided with the clipper Orpheus in what is regarded as the deadliest maritime disaster in US Pacific coastal history. Only two of the 327 people onboard survived the sinking.

Built in 1850, originally to serve prospectors during the California Gold Rush, the Pacific was heading south from Victoria in Canada to San Francisco when the collision occurred, 80 miles south of the USA’s north-westernmost point Cape Flattery. 

Sonar image of part of the Pacific’s upper deck and steam machinery (Rockfish / NSA)
Sonar image showing part of the Pacific’s upper deck and steam machinery (Rockfish / NSA)

The Pacific sank in less than an hour. An inquest found that only three untrained and inexperienced crew had been on watch, and that her lifeboats could carry only 160 people. None of these boats had in any case been usable, having been filled with water earlier to help stabilise the vessel. The Orpheus captain was found to have diverted from his course and done too little to assist the stricken Pacific.

In Victoria, a number of “prominent and wealthy” passengers had boarded the Pacific along with miners returning from the Cassiar gold-fields of British Columbia, leading Rockfish to believe that the ship’s cargo was likely to include gold.

The Pacific, built at the time of the Gold Rush (NSA)
The Pacific paddle-steamer, built during the Gold Rush (NSA)
The Pacific was captured in a number of photographs (NSA)
The Pacific appears in a number of photographs of the time (Edward Muybridge / NSA)

The company’s president Jeff Hummel is among a number of wreck-hunters who have spent years trying to locate the Pacific. Rockfish had carried out 12 previous expeditions since 2017, using side-scan sonar, a bottom-towed camera sled and ROVs. 

Jeff Hummel (Rockfish / NSA)
Rockfish president Jeff Hummel (Rockfish / NSA)

The company’s initial 338sq mile search area was reduced largely by analysing trawler track data and interviewing fishers, some of whom had found coal in their nets. Analysis revealed this to have come from a mine owned by Pacific’s owners Goodall, Nelson & Perkins, and this finding reduced the search area to 2sq miles.

Found at a depth described only as between 300 and 900m, the Pacific wreck-site was first imaged in October 2021 but not recognised immediately. Once identified, the two paddle-wheels with part of the steel driveshaft attached were spotted some 650m from the hull, confirming survivors’ accounts that they had detached during the sinking. 

The Pacific’s detached paddle-wheels (Rockfish / NSA)
The Pacific’s detached paddle-wheels (Rockfish / NSA)

Rockfish says that it will transfer all recovered non-cargo items of historical interest to the non-profit Northwest Shipwreck Alliance (NSA) at no cost. The NSA, which was started years before Rockfish by Hummel and historian and scuba diver Matthew McCauley (its president), plans eventually to display Pacific artefacts in a new museum in the Puget Sound area. 

The first items recovered are pieces of forward hull-planking and a fire-brick, both being conserved by Texas A&M University. It is hoped that the brick might help to settle the question of whether the Pacific’s boiler exploded during the incident. Rockfish says it hopes to complete the salvage operation, including the ship’s paddle-wheels, over the next three years.

Worm-eaten timber recovered by a Rockfish ROV (Rockfish / NSA)
Worm-eaten Pacific oak planking fragment recovered by a Rockfish ROV (Rockfish / NSA)
Did the boiler explode? This fire-brick could hold the answer (Rockfish / NSA)
Did the boiler explode? This fire-brick could help to answer the question (Rockfish / NSA)

In 1984 Hummel and McCauley, then both aged 20, won a landmark case after being sued by the US Navy over ownership of an aircraft wreck they had found, and were awarded clear and free title to the plane. They went on to recover four more WW2-era naval combat aircraft from Lake Washington, among other wreck projects.

60 tonnes of silver

Meanwhile, 60 tonnes of silver bullion valued at US $36 million, recovered in 2017 from a WW2 shipwreck lying 2.5km deep near Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, have been awarded to British treasure-hunter Ross Hyett’s salvage company.

A South African court has ruled that Argentum Exploration, owned by the former executive director of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, can keep the 2,364 silver bars brought up from the wreck five years ago. The silver was originally deposited with the UK’s Receiver of Wreck.

The silver ship Tilawa (Tilawa Foundation)
The silver ship Tilawa (Tilawa Foundation)

On 23 November, 1942, the British India Steam Navigation Company passenger/cargo liner Tilawa was carrying Indian nationals and a cargo of silver from what is now Mumbai to Durban. The bullion was to be used by the South African government to mint coins. 

Between two torpedo strikes from the Japanese submarine I-29 many of the 732 passengers and 222 crew were able to evacuate the ship, but 280 died in the sinking. HMS Birmingham rescued most of the survivors the following day.

The Tilawa was located and identified in 2014 after an 18-month search by Advanced Maritime Services, which was engaged by Argentum to recover the silver. South Africa had argued that the bullion was state property, but Hyett’s legal team succeeded with their claim that the ship had been acting as a merchant vessel and was not on a government mission.

A South African appeals court agreed that as cargo the bars were legally in commercial use, but said that had the ship been South African-owned the ruling would probably have favoured the government. 

Also on Divernet: Tyre-Trackers, 20 Best Wrecks In The World, Atlantic Wreck Located In Cold Lake Superior


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