SS Pacific (1851)

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The SS Pacific was a 900-ton sidewheel steamer built in 1851 most notable for its sinking in 1875 as a result of a collision southwest of Cape Flattery, Washington.[1] The list of casualties of the disaster, of which there were only two survivors of an estimated 300 on board, included several notable figures, including its captain at the time of the disaster, Jefferson D. Howell, the brother-in-law of ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis.


Originally in service on passenger runs between Panama and San Francisco, the 'Pacific was among the many vessels who ferried miners from California to the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in 1858. She was damaged from a grounding in the 1860s and was repaired, but was retired from service. The onset of the Cassiar Gold Rush in far northern British Columbia saw her returned to service in the period 1872 to 1875 on a regular run from San Francisco to and from Victoria, British Columbia and the American cities of Puget Sound.


On November 4, 1875, she boarded passengers and freight in Victoria for the regular run to San Francisco in the climate of an unregulated and highly competitive market where passage was often offered for free just to hurt the competing shipping line's business (the regular Victoria-San Francisco fare was $5 - about $200 in modern currency). Loaded to the gunwales and listing badly, efforts to right the ship included filling lifeboats with water to bring her to trim, and then doing the same with the lifeboats on the other side to re-compensate when the vessel began to list too heavily in the opposite direction. No lifeboat drills were held, and at a subsequent inquest it was revealed that even if the lifeboats had been available for use, only 145 passengers could have been saved, with at least another 155 left on board to go down with the ship (the official estimate of the number of passengers was 275, but as children paid no fare the death toll is believed to have been much higher).

Around 8 p.m. on the evening of Thursday November 4, the Pacific hit the SS Orpheus[1], although both vessels continued on their course and the captain of the Orpheus later testified he was unaware of the collision. With only a few lifeboats usable, some crew joined what women had managed to get into one, in one case going so far as to throw out the husband of one woman despite her pleas to let her husband stay. None of the lifeboat parties survived, and went down soon after many of the 300-odd people struggling in the cold water went down, the women first among them because of the heavy, elaborate clothing then in fashion. An estimated 20 survived the sinking and managed to survive a while by clinging to large pieces of wreckage, and all but two of these eventually succumbed to hypothermia, as did one of the remaining pair, leaving Henry Jelley as the only one of two survivors.

Jelley, of Port Stanley, Ontario, had been a surveyor for the exploratory surveys of the then-planned Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia, survived by clinging to the wheelhouse where he had seen another survivor, a man from Maine who had been in the Cariboo goldfields and like Jelley was on his way home to the eastern part of the continent via the transcontinental railway from San Francisco. The other survivor succumbed to cold by about 4 a.m. of the Saturday morning following as the wreckage drifted closer to Vancouver Island. Only three miles from shore, Jeelley was rescued by the American bark Messenger at 10 a.m. and brought ashore at Port Angeles, Washington, returning shortly thereafter from there to Victoria, just across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He was one of two survivors who testified at the inquest into the sinking.

The other survivor was a crewman, Neil Henley of the Hebrides, who had been rescued by the United States customs ship SS Oliver Walcott, of 1100 tons burthen. Like Jelley, Henley had survived by climbing onto some wreckage, where he joined the captain, three other crew members, two male passengers and a woman. All the others succumbed to the cold, but Henley survived from the Thursday evening of the sinking until Monday morning.

Testimony by the crew of the Orpheus indicated that its Captain Sawyer had been drinking, and had been unsure of his location and had come alongside the Pacific in hopes of consulting with the latter's captain, with the collision damaging the Pacific's rigging in the process. Rather than wait to see what damage might have been done to the other vessel, Captain Sawyer sailed the Orpheus away after determining his own ship was not damaged, a fact that was observed to contribute greatly to the loss of life of those on board the Pacific. The Orpheus just afterwards ran aground in Barkley Sound, after Sawyer had confused the Cape Beale lighthouse there with that of Cape Flattery.

A separate American inquiry exonerated Captain Sawyer, despite protestations from the Victoria press, on the unfounded basis that the Orpheus had been unable to assist the Pacific because of panic on board that ship after the collision. In fact, no one on the Pacific had been aware of the damage until after the Orpheus was already sailing away. Sawyer later died at Port Townsend in 1894.


In addition to Captain Howell, who had been a Confederate naval officer as well as brother-in-law to the Confederacy's president, there were several notable persons in British Columbia history among the casualties. These included lumberman Sewell "Sue" Moody, founder of Moodyville, Captain Otis Parsons who had just sold off his fleet of Fraser River steamers, and J.H. Sullivan, who had been Gold Commissioner of the Cassiar mining district. Most of the freight was coal and potatoes.

British Columbia historian Frederick W. Howay estimated that there was $100,000 on board, but this may have been the same as a known $40,000 in the possession of the aforementioned Captain Otis Parsons and was one of those who went down with the ship. This number is believed by contemporary British Columbia historian Garnet Basque to have been much higher, based on an 1861 manifest of another voyage of the Pacific on November 18 of that year, as quoted in the Victoria Colonist in Basque's chapter on the Pacific disaster in his book Lost Bonanzas of British Columbia:

:The steamship Pacific went to sea yesterday morning, from Esquimalt, at 9 o'clock. She had on board nearly 200 miners and others as passengers from this place, and 120 United States soldiers from the Sound [Puget Sound]. Wells, Fargo and Co. shipped 205,998 dollars in gold dust. The total shipment, including the amounts in private hands, will reach 400,000 dollars (£80,000).

Basque observes that whatever its amount, the "Treasure of the SS Pacific" "lies in only 12 to 13 fathoms off water off Cape Flattery".

See also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ebbesmeyer, C.C. & Haglund, W.D. (2002): Floating remains on Pacific Northwest waters. – In: Haglund, W.D. & Sorg, M.H. (eds): Advances in forensic taphonomy method, theory and archeological perspectives pp.: 219-240, Boca Raton, CRC Press.

Lost Bonanzas of British Columbia, Vol. II, Garnet Basque, Sunfire Publications (1994), Heritage House Publishing (1999), Surrey BC. ISBN.

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