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Company wins bid to unlock secrets of 1875 SS Pacific steamboat disaster

To date, the sinking of the S.S. Pacific remains the deadliest maritime disaster in the history of the Pacific Coast of the continental United States.

(CN) — Court documents unsealed Friday revealed exploration company Rockfish has located the remains of the S.S. Pacific, a steamboat that sank off the Washington state coast nearly 150 years ago.

The big reveal came in the form of Rockfish’s request filed Nov. 21 to recover an abandoned vessel believed to be the S.S. Pacific: a 223-foot side-wheel steamer that sank on Nov. 4, 1875, after colliding with a 1,272-ton, square-rigged clipper 80 miles south of Cape Flattery, Washington. The Pacific sank in less than an hour and over 300 on board perished.

U.S. District Judge James Robart granted Rockfish exclusive salvage rights to the site that remains the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. Pacific Coast history. The discovery is set to clear up decades of debate about how the ship sank and whether there is gold among the artifacts that went down with the ship.

“There was cargo that was insured, so yeah, we think it's likely,” Rockfish founder Jeffrey Hummel said in an interview.

Low-resolution sonar image of the remains of part of the upper deck and some steam machinery of the S.S. Pacific, which sank off the coast of Washington state in 1875. (Rockfish via Courthouse News)

In its day, steamers like the Pacific were popular modes of transportation between Puget Sound and San Francisco. Just before sinking, the Pacific picked up prominent and wealthy passengers in Victoria, Canada, along with a crowd of gold miners from British Columbia.

But gold doesn’t appear to be the only driving force behind Hummel’s desire to find the Pacific. In fact, discovering lost and abandoned artifacts is what he and his life-long friend Matthew McCauley have been doing since high school.

McCauley met Hummel at Mercer Island High School and the two bonded over Hummel’s skill for engineering sonar technologies and McCauley’s certified diving. Eventually, they set out to find a World War II-era aircraft that Hummel’s father watched sink to the bottom of Lake Washington.

Hummel and McCauley found the plane knowing it was abandoned and not considered an operational loss. What they didn’t know, however, was that the federal government would sue the then-20-year-olds over the plane, in the landmark case United States v. Hummel et al.

Much like the plane they won the rights to, the men hope to salvage the Pacific for research and historical purposes, working with nonprofit Northwest Shipwreck Alliance to donate historically significant artifacts along the way. So far, Rockfish has recovered fire brick and a piece of wooden hull planking, which the company is temporarily storing at Hummel’s residence before they send the items to Texas A&M University for preservation and long-term storage.

Hummel hopes the brick will answer questions about the sinking itself, a topic debated in papers at the time, and whether the ship’s boiler exploded.

“When you read the firsthand accounts, it's not really clear if there was an explosion,” Hummel said, noting there was a scalded body recovered with a large laceration on the leg.

A piece of fire brick brought up from the S.S. Pacific during Rockfish’s most recent expedition. (Rockfish via Courthouse News)

Finding human remains today is unlikely, Hummel said.

“It's unlikely that there were any people in the actual ship when it went down,” Hummel said. “Everyone had evacuated the lower portion of the ship and was on the top deck, and then most people had life jackets on, and so the bodies would just float away from the site.”

As for interest in the deceased’s possessions, if any remain, Hummel isn’t quite sure what to expect in response from living descendants. Private belongings aboard a recovered ship are covered under the law of finds, allowing claimants to seek goods with evidence of ownership within an allotted amount of time. However, a salvor is entitled to a good chunk of the item’s value for rendering assistance and saving it from marine peril.

“There's a few families that may come forward," Hummel said, noting that overall many aboard the Pacific that night were single males with no attachments and no descendants.

According to Hummel’s declaration, at least five other groups have attempted to locate and salvage the Pacific without success. Having founded Rockfish in 2016 with the sole purpose of locating the Pacific, Hummel and his team tried to find the shipwreck 12 times themselves, with each expedition costing between $25,000 and $75,000.

Now that Rockfish has its sights on the Pacific, it’s focused on choosing the right equipment to excavate what’s left of the wreckage over the next three years. But while Hummel hopes to retrieve well-preserved pieces of the Pacific, such as the paddle wheel, he doesn’t expect to unearth large chunks of the ship.

Eventually, Hummel hopes to write a book about the Pacific and to help build a museum in the Puget Sound area.

“The main thing that we want to do is protect and preserve the site for future generations and then tell the story of part of the history in this area,” Hummel said, noting most people don’t realize that the Puget Sound area was once the third largest coal-producing port in the U.S. This aspect of Seattle’s history and the people involved, he explained, are the stories his team wants to tell and “bring back to life.”

Even still, finding the ship doesn’t quite equate to an outright celebration, says McCauley.

“We take this very seriously, and this is a somber deal. This is not like woo-hoo party time kind of a thing,” McCauley said. “A lot of people died, even though their remains might not be in the vessel itself. We're treating it with some dignity and reverence here because it is the final resting place of a great tragedy. There's some real horror stories that these poor individuals befell oftentimes before they actually perished.”

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