How a three-decade search for S.S. Pacific’s shipwreck brought a golden payoff to treasure hunters

When two childhood pals from Seattle began searching for the S.S. Pacific, which sank shortly after departing Victoria on the morning of Nov. 4, 1875, its exact co-ordinates had remained a mystery for more than a century.

Though not widely known, the wreck of the Pacific – a disaster that killed hundreds of people and sent millions of dollars of B.C. gold to the perpetual midnight of the ocean floor – remains the Northwest’s worst maritime disaster.

It was the first tragedy to hit British Columbia after becoming Canada’s sixth province in 1871, but has been largely forgotten in the decades since.

Among treasure hunters, however, the wreck has attained mythical status. It is the Holy Grail of Pacific wrecks, its legend built upon the lustre of gold, and a rumour that the vessel was laden with far, far more gold than the 4,000 ounces – worth $8-million today – reported at the time.

Jeff Hummel and Matt McCauley, both 58, spent three decades searching for the missing steamship before finally discovering it last year, entombed in mud, 500 metres beneath the sea off the Washington coast.

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Before it sank in 1875, S.S. Pacific’s last stop was Victoria, capital of a province that joined Confederation only four years earlier.

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: open streetmap

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: open streetmap

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: open streetmap

The meandering route to their white whale took them from the bowels of the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, Calif., to a mysterious hunk of coal a fisherman hauled in with his nets years ago, to thousands of hours painstakingly scanning the sea floor using a sonar drone they built themselves.

Having found the missing steamship, they are planning to raise it for display in a purpose-built museum in Seattle – a perfectly preserved time capsule of frontier life.

As early as September, we may finally learn how much treasure sank with the Pacific, gold that will make a group of people very rich. Mr. Hummel and Mr. McCauley will share the spoils with the investors – mainly friends and family – who have kicked in $2.1-million to finance their search.

It’s impossible not to see in their drive an echo of what led to the Pacific’s wreck in the first place. The insatiable impulse for gold that drove prospectors into the wilds of British Columbia is the same one that sent these two men to the ocean’s depths.

Indeed, Mr. Hummel considers the stampeders who went down with their fortunes aboard the Pacific kindred spirits. “I like to think they would be happy to know it took me so long to find it.”

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From a piloting station aboard M/V SeaBlazer, the Rockfish team controls the mini-subs used to find the Pacific’s remains.Grant Hindsley/The Globe and Mail

One of the sonar scans found part of the upper deck and some steam machinery. Another got an impression from the paddle wheel, which turned steam energy into force propelling the ship forward.


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Captain Keith Baker, shown aboard M/V SeaBlazer’s pilothouse, is part of a team that Mr. Hummel and Rockfish assembled, aided by $2.1-million from investors.Grant Hindsley/The Globe and Mail

The Pacific first arrived in B.C. shortly after Henri Thibert and his partner Angus McCulloch struck gold near the northern border of the province, in 1872. The ship had been built in 1850, and spent its first years ferrying prospectors to the gold rush city of San Francisco. In 1871, the aging vessel was retired – left to rot in the mud flats of San Francisco Bay.

After Mr. Thibert’s find, it was hastily resurrected to haul the crush of miners and speculators hurrying to the Cassiar district in the great untamed wilds of the Stikine Valley just south of Yukon. Transcontinental railways were still a decade away. The only way to – and from – B.C.’s goldfields was through San Francisco, then north to Canada by steamship.

To David Higgins, editor of Victoria’s British Colonist, the Pacific was a “bad ship, and an unlucky one.” It had sunk once before – in the shallows of the Columbia River – and lost 126 passengers to cholera on another voyage.

The makeover that Goodall, Nelson and Perkins Company gave the Pacific was purely cosmetic, according to Mr. Higgins. “She was innately rotten – the paint and putty thickly daubed on to cover the rottenness.”

The vessel was also notoriously leaky, and had just five lifeboats, in all.

That so many boarded it despite these many gross inadequacies calls Virgil to mind: “O accursed hunger of gold, to what dost thou not compel human hearts!”

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Tlingit people sit on the Alaskan shore in 1868 while the Pacific rests at anchor. Photographer Eadweard Muybridge joined the ship on an inspection of Alaskan territory the United States had just bought from Russia.

Neither the captain, nor anyone else, had any real idea how many people were aboard when the Pacific – licensed to carry 203 passengers – steamed out of Victoria on Nov. 4. Accounts suggest 350. But Mr. Higgins, who spent the morning of Nov. 4 visiting friends on board, where he saw crew hammering in new bunks, believed the doomed sloop was carrying 500 people that day.

Among them were singers, a lumber baron, a circus troupe and a large group of gold miners made extremely wealthy in the Cassiar.

It was the first sailing to San Francisco in a month. The miners had been stuck in Victoria for weeks, having departed the gold fields ahead of the winter freeze.

In all, gold worth $28-million today had been mined from the Cassiar that year, according to John Sullivan, the region’s gold commissioner.

The miners were paying Mr. Sullivan and another man, Francis Garesche, to protect their finds on the passage to San Francisco. Mr. Garesche, an agent for Wells Fargo, was also a private banker who had financed the Cassiar gold rush. They stored the precious cargo in a steel-lined strong room. Three banks had meanwhile chosen the sailing to ship large quantities of gold to San Francisco, then onto New York.

Victoria, at the time, was B.C.’s only real city. During the province’s successive gold rushes, miners, speculators and dreamers poured in from Britain, the U.S., China, Germany and Australia; they stopped in Victoria to buy shovels, pack animals and dry goods on their way to gold fields in B.C.’s Interior. The dusty capital, built on land taken from the Songhees, had genteel pretensions, but looked something like Deadwood, S.D. – rough and wild, with muddy streets, tent yards and 24-hour saloons.

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Another of Muybridge’s photos shows a young woman reading on the deck of the Pacific.

Witnesses recall the liner making an awkward progress and leaning heavily to one side as it steamed out of Esquimalt, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. To counteract the list, Captain Jefferson Davis Howell ordered all the lifeboats hanging on the ship’s opposite side to be filled with water.

The Pacific was met with rain and a heavy swell when it hit open ocean off the Strait of Juan de Fuca; it was the first hours of a 100-year storm.

As fate would have it, a 1,000-tonne clipper was, at that moment, sailing north for Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, to pick up a load of coal. Somehow, on that wide expanse of water, two ships were being pulled together like magnets, drawing closer with each passing nautical mile.

The captain of the Orpheus was below deck when his crew mistook the Pacific’s masthead light for the lighthouse at Cape Flattery. Realizing their mistake, they turned hard to port to avoid a collision. The manoeuvre caused their sails to lose the wind, leaving the sloop dead in the water.

As the crew of the Pacific watched in disbelief, the skiff’s dark bow suddenly appeared. Its engines were frantically reversed. But it was far too late. The steamship smashed the clipper on its starboard side, seriously damaging it. But the Pacific’s wounds were fatal.

“I woke up with the crash,” recalled Neil Henly, the Pacific’s quartermaster and one of just two survivors. “Jumped out of my bunk, the water rushing through the bow; all was confusion.”

He could barely believe the sight before him: The bow had been torn open. The lifeboats – filled with water – were useless.

Minutes later, the 225-foot steamer lurched to its side, like a boxer buckling at the knee after a knockout punch. It listed two or three times more, Henry F. Jelly recalled. Then with a terrible groan, it broke in half, hurtling dozens of souls into the frigid, six-degree water.

The night was dark as Erebus. A faint light shone from the stars, the only witnesses to the theatre of horror playing out below.

The last thing Mr. Jelly, a rail surveyor travelling home to Port Stanley, Ont., recalled seeing was a group of Chinese miners crying out as the water closed over them. Then, on that wild sweep of water, all fell quiet.

Mr. Jelly survived by lashing himself to the wreckage of the pilot house, and was picked up by a passing ship 36 hours after the sinking.

Mr. Henly was found a day later, floating on a piece of the ship’s upper deck. He was forever haunted by the sounds of that night – the howling wind; children crying for parents they could not find; the awful, gurgling sound a drowning man makes.

The storm tore down telegraph lines, so it took four days for the tragic news to reach Victoria, before racing across the continent. It was the darkest day in the young capital’s history, a catastrophe so far-reaching that “scarcely a household has but lost one or more of its members,” Victoria’s Daily British Colonist wrote in an editorial.

All of B.C. – a territory founded by the Fraser River gold rush – was affected. Many of those who had developed gold fields in the Cassiar died with the Pacific, dealing a colossal blow to mining, the lifeblood of the young province.

In the days following its sinking, debris and a few corpses washed ashore. The body of Fanny Palmer, the 18-year-old daughter of Victoria musicians, landed on San Juan Island, a 180-kilometre journey that brought her within sight of her family home. Her funeral, held in a blinding snowstorm, was among the largest ever held in the city.

A white plank came ashore at Beacon Hill a month after Fanny Palmer’s body. On its surface, written in pencil, in bold business type were the words: “S.P. MOODY. ALL LOST.”

Sewell P. Moody, “Sue,” to friends, owned the largest lumber mill in the west. In the frantic moments before the ship broke apart, he managed to dash off the message in the vain hope that the board might be found, and his fate known.

A coroner’s inquest held in Victoria put the blame on the Orpheus for crossing the bow of the Pacific. But it pointedly noted that the “very slight blow” should not have damaged the steamship “if she had been a sound and substantial vessel.”

The tragedy, which cost Mr. Higgins 100 friends, so haunted him it took the chronicler of Victoria history three decades to write about the seminal event.

Whenever Mr. Higgins – who later sat as Speaker of the B.C. Legislature – was asked about Pacific’s sinking, he never failed to mention the “bonnie, blue-eyed boy” he’d carried onto the steamship that morning. His mother had been struggling up the steep gangplank, and when he returned the babe to her arms, the merry little boy reached back for a kiss, waving his chubby hands.

He thought of the boy often, at times, every day. But whenever his face would appear in his mind, it shifted to one “filled with horror and anguish.”

Several times, Mr. Higgins heard the boy of his vision say: “You placed me in this coffin. Cannot you help me out?”

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Matt McCauley and Mr. Hummel have been friends since high school. For decades, they have shared a passion for finding the Pacific.Handout

Shipwrecks tend to attract unusual characters. Mr. Hummel, who is tall and lanky and has the methodical disposition of an engineer, is not a roguish, hard-living treasure hunter who dives for gold between beers. He is more scholar than salvor.

His calm bearing, however, belies a profound impatience. His days begin at 4:30 a.m. He rarely makes it home at night before 10. He is under enormous pressure from investors – and is managing costly equipment, and impossible timelines.

Mr. Hummel grew up hunting for treasure in Lake Washington by mask and snorkel. By junior high, he’d learned to scuba dive, and his bedroom looked more like a museum, stuffed with rare coins, old Coke bottles, rusty knives.

He met Mr. McCauley when the pair joined the Mercer Island High School debate team. They cut class to rebuild a 16-foot ski boat they hauled up from the bottom of the lake. “We’d go around to gas stations to ask for their old air hoses, then splice them together,” Mr. McCauley explains. “That’s what we used to go to the bottom.”

While still in school, Mr. McCauley was hit head-on by a drunk driver. The insurance settlement awarded him $8,000, the price of a brand new Mustang GT, the year’s hottest car. Mr. McCauley instead poured it all into a used, side-scan sonar to detect “anomalies” on a lakebed or sea floor.

It led them to a Curtiss Helldiver bomber that the Navy had discarded in Lake Washington. But when the Navy got wind of their find, they sued to get the plane back. In 1985, a judge ruled in favour of the 20-year-old divers.

After pulling up three more planes, they started talking in earnest about hunting for the Pacific. But university, then work, got in the way, taking Mr. McCauley to the East Coast. Mr. Hummel, who designs maritime navigational software, stayed in Seattle, pecking away at the mystery of the Pacific in his every spare moment.

In recent years, advances in radar, sonar and GPS have made the seabed more accessible. Several expeditions hunted for the Pacific. All of them failed to find her.

That didn’t stop treasure hunters from looking, and hoping. There is something about treasure that fastens upon a man’s mind, Joseph Conrad wrote in Nostromo. “He will pray and blaspheme and still persevere and will curse the day he ever heard of it, and will let his last hour come upon him unawares, still believing that he missed it only by a foot.”

At least twice, searchers looking for the Pacific came closer than that.

Separate teams imaged the exact spot where the shipwreck was found – in 1993, and again in 2000, according to Mr. Hummel. “But they went right over it.”

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At the Seattle Fishermen’s Terminal, a decompressor is lowered into the water during a demonstration of Rockfish’s equipment. It has several functions, depending on where it is in relation to the ROV; one of them is to add stability for sonar.Grant Hindsley/The Globe and Mail

Rockfish’s headquarters is in a storage container near the terminal. The company plans to use the containers on future expeditions with bigger boats.

Grant Hindsley/The Globe and Mail

In Rockfish’s laboratory, they are building new remote vehicles for the three-year process of recovering artifacts and gold from the shipwreck site.

Grant Hindsley/The Globe and Mail

“To locate a wreck, you need to know where to start looking,” Mr. Hummel says. The ocean is vast, he adds; we know more about the surface of Mars than the ocean floor.

He became a “stack rat,” visiting obscure archives in New York, Washington, Victoria, San Francisco and Tacoma, Wash., while travelling for work, looking for accounts of the sinking in newspapers stored on microfilm. He hunted down tidal currents for 1875. Steamship specifications helped him determine the Pacific’s likely speed. The search field these documents produced was 900 square kilometres – one and a half times the size of Toronto.

His enthusiasm for the project turned to obsession with the discovery of a crucial document in the early nineties: testimony that Mr. Sullivan’s successor as gold commissioner provided to the roving historian H.H. Bancroft. It suggested as much as 10 times the reported amount of gold had actually been loaded onto the ill-fated craft.

To narrow his parameters, Mr. Hummel began haunting seaside greasy spoons at 4 a.m., befriending Washington fishermen, to see whether any remembered pulling in something strange in their nets. He put on more than a few pounds, but the method eventually led him to a fisherman who drove him to his ex-wife’s storage locker. There the trawler brought out a piece of coal he’d hauled up with a load of hake and cod, years earlier. An Alberta lab made clear the coal likely came from the Pacific: It was mined from the Coos Bay, Ore., coal mine belonging to the ship’s owners.

That discovery, later followed by a tip from a second fisherman who’d hauled in a load of coal, helped narrow the search field to 20 square miles, an area filled with underwater canyons, crags and grottos.

With the hunt intensifying, Mr. Hummel took a one-year sabbatical, so he could work on it full time. He’s well into his third year, and only recently began collecting a small salary from the investment fund. He and Mr. McCauley spent two seasons examining the small area using two sonar drones designed and built by Mr. Hummel.

Mr. McCauley has since taken the helm of their non-profit arm, the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance, which aims to launch the Seattle-area museum that will be devoted to the Pacific.

This brick and wooden hull fragment were chosen as evidence to convince a U.S. federal judge the searchers had found the Pacific.


The seas were rough and stormy the day the Pacific passed in front of Mr. Hummel’s screen for the first time, in fall of 2021 – what turned out to be the last possible search day for the year. “That is the ship,” he said. He could see its straight lines. “That is the engine – 100 per cent.” On a second pass, though, “it just looked like a blur.” It was an agonizing nine months before the team could return to the site to confirm the hunch.

When it comes to treasure hunting, the only thing more important than good research is a good lawyer. If people are willing to put in the work – and expense – of tracking down an abandoned wreck, maritime law says they deserve a portion of the find.

First, Mr. Hummel had to convince a federal judge they really had found the wreck, by bringing in proof. They chose a soot-stained fire brick they believe came from the ship’s boiler, and planking from its hull. Last November, U.S. District Court Judge James L. Robart issued an order that restricts competing salvors from entering the area. The Coast Guard has orders to detain any vessel that enters the area.

“What’s there is beyond anyone’s possible imagination,” Mr. McCauley says. When the Pacific hit the ocean floor with massive force, a cloud of clay and mud rose from the seabed, settling over the wreck – effectively sealing it, he explains. “It’s in exceptional shape. There is no other find in marine archeology like it in the world.”

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Bags like these represent the gold that Rockfish hopes to recover from the Pacific in coming years.Grant Hindsley/The Globe and Mail

Mr. McCauley, working with archeologists, has come up with a three-year plan to dismantle the ship piece by piece, using mini-subs known as ROVs. The operation began in early July.

It is unlikely that human remains will be found, but if they are, Mr. Hummel will ship them to Victoria, where they can be interred at the memorial to the Pacific.

In all, Mr. Hummel led 26 ocean searches to find the ship, each one lasting weeks. He noticed that whenever they returned to shore, the entire crew would silently watch him, as if expecting him to call it all off. “We’re going to keep going,” he’d say. “We’re not gonna stop.”

He was animated by ambition and obsession, sure, but also wonder – the same eternal stirring that sent him to the bottom of Lake Washington hundreds of times as a boy.

“I think a lot of people expect you to quit. They really do,” Mr. Hummel says. “No one just keeps at it. But I knew it was findable because we had coal from it. It didn’t just vanish into thin air.”

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