- Nearly 150 years after the sinking of the SS Pacific, Hummel and his expedition team at Rockfish, Inc believe they have discovered the wreck.
- On 4 November 1875, the Pacific departed Victoria with more passengers than its lifeboats could support.
- Nearly 300 people are believed to have died, making it both the deadliest maritime disaster in the region – and one of the most elusive wrecks.
At stake is a reward of gold worth $7m rumored to have been onboard when the ship went down on a voyage to San Francisco, reported by The Guardian.
SS Pacific discovered
For much of his life, Jeff Hummel has searched the murky waters of the Pacific north-west and dusty local archives for any clue that could guide him to the final resting place of a gold-laden ship.
But the art of wreck discovery – of searching a vast area for a small target – requires looking past a wall of failure.
“You don’t quit until you succeed. People always asked how much much longer we’d look for it. And I told them we’d stop once we found it,” said Hummel.
“It was never really an option to not keep going.”
Nearly 150 years after the sinking of the SS Pacific, Hummel and his expedition team at Rockfish, Inc believe they have discovered the wreck.
And as the team prepares to recover the sunken paddle-wheeler, they’re hopeful that the millions of dollars worth of gold believed to have gone down with the ship is still onboard.
Exclusive salvage rights
Last month, a court in Seattle granted Rockfish exclusive salvage rights to the wreck.
While underwriters to the cargo, as well as the ships former owners, have a partial claim to what is unearthed, anyone who can prove a family connection to an owner of the gold could also attempt to stake a claim.
Hummel is working alongside the non-profit Northwest Shipwreck Alliance to recover the ship – capping a three-decade hunt that he began as a teen, then an amateur sleuth and now as the head of a well-equipped expedition team.
The ship details
The SS Pacific was a 225 ft-paddle-wheeler that traversed the coast of western North America. It partially sank in 1861 and was briefly restored for service until its owners left it to rot in 1870.
But a gold rush made the route from Victoria, British Columbia, to San Francisco highly lucrative, and the ship was brought back into service, despite rumors of a weakened hull.
On 4 November 1875, the Pacific departed Victoria with more passengers than its lifeboats could support.
On board were wealthy residents of the city, gold miners and Chinese laborers.
Stored safely among the cargo of dry goods, coal, horses and opium was at least 4,000 ounces of gold – worth nearly more than $7m at current prices.
That evening, the ship encountered rough seas and to help steer through the strong winds and whitecaps, the captain ordered two port-side lifeboats filled with water.
Later that night, the Orpheus, a ship traveling from San Francisco to Vancouver Island to collect coal, spotted a light from the Pacific near Washington state’s Cape Flattery and turned sharply to avoid it.
The crew of the Pacific tried to avoid a collision by reversing the engines, but the Orpheus struck the side of the oncoming ship.
Most of the lifeboats capsized before hitting the water and the ship quickly broke apart. Less than half an hour after it had first been struck, the Pacific sank, taking with it nearly all of the passengers.
Nearly 300 people are believed to have died, making it both the deadliest maritime disaster in the region – and one of the most elusive wrecks.
Just two people survived in the frigid waters and cold autumn temperatures.
Searches over the years
Since the 1980s, six attempts have been made to locate the Pacific’s final resting place – and its rumored trove of gold – but all were unsuccessful.
“The other searches failed because they relied entirely on technology,” said Hummel. “We relied on two things: technology and physical evidence.”
Over the years, commercial anglers in the region have reported objects on the sea floor snagging their equipment – a common frustration. On occasion, some have found coal in their fishing nets.
For Hummel, those were clues, especially after he and his team were able to use a chemical analysis to link the coal samples to freight carried by the Pacific.
Also drawing on records from the two survivors, the team found a possible search area south of Cape Flattery.
Last year, they ran sonar along the site and found what they thought could be a wreck – or just a rock formation on the ocean floor.
“There was never a ‘eureka’ moment … It just felt like each clue we found was consistent with the wreck,” he said.
“The site is so different from what people expected that it took a while to really convince myself this is the right spot.”
Earlier this year, a robot with a camera attached visited the site and recovered a worm-eaten piece of wood.
Hundreds of meters away, the camera spotted impressions on the seafloor that resembled the remains of a paddle-wheel.
Museum for ocean disasters
The team expects painstaking salvage efforts to begin next year, with the hope of building a museum in tribute to the region’s worst ocean disaster.
Under maritime law, Hummel believes he can lay claim to a significant portion of what they recover and is working to have any existing rights, held by the underwriters and former ship owners, released to the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance to ensure clear title.
Way to time travel
But he also says the discovery represents what he loves about years-long search.
“You can’t really travel through time, but finding a wreck, you can go back to a spot where all of the things come from a different time,” said Hummel.
“You spend years studying the boat and passengers and then if you’re lucky, you’re the first to touch something that was last touched by them.”
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Source: The Guardian