One of America’s most elusive shipwrecks found along Washington coast

On Nov. 4, 1875, the ill-fated SS Pacific departed the harbor in Victoria, British Columbia. The sidewheel streamliner bound for San Francisco never reached its destination. Not far from Cape Flattery on the Washington coast, the vessel was struck by the sailing ship, Orpheus.

For roughly a century-and-a-half, treasure hunters searched for its watery grave with no such luck. Then, a few months ago, local explorer Jeff Hummel and his crew at Rockfish, Inc., made an astonishing discovery.

“If we hadn’t found it, I don’t know how long it would be until someone else would have found it,” said Hummel. “It seemed like an impossible task. I mean, it’s out in the middle of nowhere.”

It’s estimated more than 300 passengers boarded the SS Pacific. All but two perished.

“The wealthiest timber baron on the West Coast was on board the ship,” said Hummel. “There were gold miners returning with their fortune and they had risked everything up until that point.”

Estimates vary, but the gold that the vessel was carrying could be today’s equivalent of more than $10 million.

“‘We’re on the voyage home, we’re about to arrive with our fortunes, and they never made it,” said Hummel.

Quartermaster Neil Henly was one of the two survivors. He was rescued after holding onto a piece of wreckage for more than three days. The Scottish immigrant went on to settle in the Washington territory. Henly was married and had a large family. His descendants still live in Steilacoom where he homesteaded, with granddaughter Judy Adams among them. At 92 years old, Adams still holds vivid memories of her grandfather.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here if he hadn’t survived that,” said Adams. “He would never forget the cries of the people who were drowning and calling for help.”

In late 2022, Adams’ daughter Joan Brown happened upon a news article: Local explorer Jeff Hummel had found the sunken SS Pacific in international waters off the Washington coast. Not long after, Brown reached out to Hummel.

“He said, ‘Do you know how your great-grandfather survived?’” said Brown. “You know, you hear about things, but this brings it to life.”

According to Hummel, the ship is in a state of preservation that will blow people’s minds.

“We will find suitcases with people’s clothing in them,” said Hummel. “I have told the family of Neil Henly that it’s possible we will find some of his possessions.”

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