SS Pacific (1851)

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SS Pacific, from a drawing commissioned early in its career.
SS Pacific, from a drawing commissioned early in its career.
United States
Name: Pacific
Builder: William H. Brown, New York
Launched: September 24, 1850
Fate: Sunk after collision, November 4, 1875
General characteristics [1]
Class and type: Steamship
Tonnage: 876 tons
Length: 223 ft (68 m)
Beam: 33 ft 6 in (10.21 m)

SS Pacific was an 876-ton[1] sidewheel steamer built in 1851 most notable for its sinking in 1875 as a result of a collision southwest of Cape Flattery, Washington.[2] Pacific had an estimated 275 passengers and crew aboard when she sank. Only two survived. Among the casualties were several notable figures, including the vessel's captain at the time of the disaster, Jefferson Davis Howell (1846–1875), the nephew of ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis.[1]


Originally in service on passenger runs between Panama and San Francisco, 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, by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, on a regular run from San Francisco to and from Victoria, British Columbia and the American cities of Puget Sound.


On 4 November 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 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 4 November, Pacific hit the SS Orpheus,[2] although both vessels continued on their course and the captain of Orpheus later testified he was unaware of the collision. With only a few lifeboats usable, some crew joined the women who 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 drowned. The women drowned first because of the voluminous skirts then in fashion. An estimated 20 survived the sinking and managed to survive for a while by clinging to large pieces of wreckage. All but two of these eventually succumbed to hypothermia, as did one of the remaining pair, leaving Henry Jelley as 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; he 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, Jelley 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 Orpheus indicated that her Captain Sawyer had been drinking, and had been unsure of his location and had come alongside Pacific in hopes of consulting with the latter's captain, with the collision damaging 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 Pacific. Shortly afterwards, Orpheus 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 Orpheus had been unable to assist Pacific because of panic on board that ship after the collision. In fact, no one on Pacific had been aware of the damage until after Orpheus was already sailing away. Sawyer later died at Port Townsend in 1894.[3]


In addition to Captain Howell, who had been a Confederate naval officer as well as nephew 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.[citation needed]

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 who 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 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:[citation needed]

"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 of water off Cape Flattery".[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b 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.
  2. ^ Greg Stott, "A Great Old Tramp: Letters from a Canadian Sojourner in British Columbia, 1873–1875," THE ORMSBY REVIEW # 123

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