Loss of the Steamship Pacific

The loss of the steamship Pacific, somewhere off Cape Flattery on November 4th, 1875 is now forgotten, a historical footnote at best for some. In its time, the tragic loss of the ship and the death of all aboard, save two, was a devastating event that affected families and communities up and down the coast, from the sawmills of Burrard Inlet, the young settlement of Victoria in British Columbia, and the American settlement on Puget Sound, to the burgeoning metropolis of San Francisco.

Pacific was a pioneer of west coast steamship service. Built in New York in 1850, the 2250-foot long, 1,003-ton Pacific was one of many steamers caught up in the California Gold Rush. The news of the California gold discovery of January 1848 reached a fever pitch at the end of the year and throughout the early months of 1849. Hundreds of ships sailed from the eastern service via the narrow Isthmus of Panama, a centuries-old link between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The United States Mail Steamship Company ferried passengers between New York, New Orleans, and Chagres, Panama’s Caribbean port. From there, they crossed the Isthmus by dugout and mule train to Panama City. Then, they boarded steamers of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company for San Francisco. The “Panama Route,” in its heyday of 1849-1869, transported three-quarters of a million passengers and over $700 million in gold, as well as mail and valuable freight.

After a brief stint carrying passengers between New Orleans and Chagres for the United States Mail Steamship Company, Pacific departed from New York for San Francisco in March 1851. Arriving at San Francisco on July 2nd, the steamer operated between there and Panama City, and then San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua for the next four years for the Vanderbilt Line, a competitor of the Pacific Mail. Laid up in 1855, Pacific, like a number of other gold rush veterans, entered coastal service in 1858 when Captain John Thomas Wright of San Francisco bought her for his Merchant’s Accommodation Line, which connected San Francisco with Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia ports in direct competition with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. After two other owners, Pacific passed into the hands of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in 1872. Pacific Mail ran her between San Francisco and San Diego until 1875, when they sold Pacific to coastal steamship entrepreneurs Charles Goodall, Christopher Nelson, and George C. Perkins.

Steamship service between San Francisco and Victoria had blossomed after the discovery of gold on the Fraser River in late 1875. John Wright’s Merchant’s Accommodation Line began running the steamer Commodore to Victoria in April 1858, and purchased Pacific in July in response to the rush. Within the next year, 105 steamship voyages connected San Francisco and Victoria as tens of thousands of Americans headed north to the new gold strike. Ironically, it was another gold discovery in British Columbia at Cassiar in 1872 and a new rush that spanned the next few years that returned Pacific to Victoria service in 1875.

Steaming to Victoria at the end of October, Pacific made a voyage down to Puget Sound to Tacoma before returning to Victoria on the morning of November 4th to load cargo and passengers for the trip to San Francisco. Among them were British Columbian businessmen heading south to do business in San Francisco, returning California visitors, and miners leaving Cassiar for the winter—or for good. Apparently both overloaded with cargo and passengers (the steamer had accommodations for 253 persons, but more tickets than berths had been sold), Pacific steamed out of Victoria at 9:30 on the morning of the 4th, listing badly to starboard. To the right of the steamer, the crew finally filled the lifeboats on the portside with water, and the weight pulled Pacific on to a more or less even keel. The struggle to right the steamer took hours; it was not until 4:00 pm that Pacific crossed Cape Flattery and headed out of the Straits of Juan de Fuca into the open ocean.

Meanwhile, the ship Orpheus, heading for Nanaimo to load coal, was approaching Cape Flattery after sailing north from San Francisco. About 10:00 pm, in the darkness of the Cape, Orpheus’ officers were startled by the lights of an approaching ship. As they watched in disbelief, the ship, a steamer, hit Orpheus on the starboard side and kept going. Orpheus, her rigging damaged, also kept going.

The steamer that struck Orpheus was Pacific. After the collision, water had poured through the hull, drowning the boiler fires. Pacific was sinking rapidly, and as passengers milled on the decks, the crew tried to launch the boats. Their efforts failed as boats overturned. Passenger Henry Jelly, aboard one boat, was thrown into the sea as his overcrowded lifeboat flipped. Only five men made it back to the surface to cling to the overturned hull. Pacific did not have much longer to live herself. Minutes after the collision, the ship broke apart and sank, pulling many down with it. A handful of survivors, buoyed by the wreckage that had broken free of the hull, drifted off into the night.

Jelly and one other man swam from their overturned boat to the top of the pilothouse, which was floating nearby, and drifted through the next day. As they rode the waves, they passed wreckage with other passengers clinging to it, but the ordeal was too much for most. Jelly’s companion died on the afternoon of the first day, and he drifted on, alone now, through another night. The following morning, the passing ship Messenger spotted him and rescued him, battered and exhausted, from his precarious perch. He would not have lasted much longer. Jelly arrived at Port Townsend on November 7th, just three days after Pacific had departed. The news reached Victoria and the rest of the coast quickly and horribly. “The catastrophe is so far-reaching,” said the Victoria Daily British Colonist. “Scarcely a household in Victoria but has lost one or more of its members. . . .”

Jelly’s account was doubted until another survivor, Pacific’s quartermaster, Neil Henley, was rescued. Like Jelly, he had clung to wreckage, in his case, the remains of the steamer’s hurricane deck. A small group of survivors, including Pacific’s captain, Jefferson D. Howell, had joined Henley on his raft, but the sea had taken all of them. Near death, Henley was spotted by a passing ship, the US Revenue cutter Oliver Wolcott, and rescued four days after Pacific had sunk. Shock and disbelief gave way to indignation as bodies and debris washed ashore and the account of the two survivors showed that the aged steamer had been so rotten that her bow had crumbled with the blow to the Orpheus. A Victoria coroner’s jury condemned both Pacific and Orpheus’ officers, and pointedly noted that the collision had been “A very slight blow, the shock of which should not have damaged the Pacific if she had been a sound and substantial vessel.”

The wreck of the Pacific, despite several searches for a Wells Fargo shipment of gold and the riches of some her passengers, has never been found. Orpheus, the other participant in the drama, was, ironically, wrecked on November 5th when her crew crashed her ashore at Barkley Sound on the western shores of Vancouver Island after losing their bearings. The skeletal remains on the ship lie on the seabed to this day, a provincially registered heritage site surveyed and studied by the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia.

The epitaph of Pacific, written by one of the victims, is displayed by the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Sewell P. “Sue” Moody, pioneer lumberman and owner of a Burrard Inlet sawmill, was en route to San Francisco on Pacific to do business with his partners in the southern city. A popular man, Moody was filled with energy and was one of British Columbia’s most “enterprising” citizens. Six weeks after the sinking, a fragment of the lost steamer was discovered on the beach below Beacon Hill at Victoria. Penciled into the whitewashed fragment was a final note from Sewell Moody. “All lost, S. P. Moody.” Before the sea had claimed him, and not knowing that anyone would make it out of the sea alive, Moody had sent a message that was finally delivered from beyond the grave. It, like this poignant poem of loss and hope, are powerful reminders of that fateful night of November 4th, 1875.

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