Has the gold-laden wreck of the SS Pacific been found 150 years after it sank?

For much of his life, Jeff Hummel searched the murky waters of the Pacific Northwest and dusty local records for any clues that might lead him to the final resting place of a gold-laden ship. But the art of wreckage discovery – of searching a wide area for a small target – requires looking beyond a wall of failure.

“You don’t give up until you’ve succeeded. People were always asking how much longer we were going to look for him. And I told them we would stop once we found it,” Hummel said. “It was never really an option not to continue.”

Nearly 150 years after the sinking of the SS Pacific, Hummel and his expedition team at Rockfish, Inc believe they have discovered the wreck. And as the team prepares to recover the sunken paddle steamer, they hope the millions of dollars in gold that would have sunk with the vessel are still on board.

Last month, a Seattle court granted Rockfish exclusive rights to salvage the wreckage. While the underwriters of the cargo, as well as the former owners of the ships, have partial claim to what is discovered, anyone who can prove a family connection to an owner of the gold could also attempt to claim.

Hummel is working alongside the non-profit Northwest Shipwreck Alliance to recover the ship – capping a three-decade hunt he began as a teenager, then an amateur sleuth and now leads a team of well-equipped expedition.

The SS Pacific was a 225-foot paddle steamer that cruised the west coast of North America. She partially sank in 1861 and was briefly recommissioned until her owners left her to rot in 1870. But a gold rush made the route from Victoria, BC to San Francisco very lucrative , and the ship was returned to service, despite rumors of a weakened hull.

On November 4, 1875, the Pacific left Victoria with more passengers than her lifeboats could handle. On board were wealthy townspeople, gold diggers and Chinese laborers.

At least 4,000 ounces of gold were safely stored among the cargo of dry goods, coal, horses and opium, worth nearly $7 million at today’s prices.

That evening the ship encountered rough seas and to help steer through the strong winds and whitecaps the captain ordered two lifeboats to port filled with water.

Later that night, the Orpheus, a ship traveling from San Francisco to Vancouver Island to collect coal, spotted a Pacific light near Cape Flattery in Washington state and turned back to avoid it.

Pacific’s crew attempted to avoid a collision by reversing the engines, but Orpheus struck the side of the oncoming ship.

Most of the lifeboats capsized before hitting the water and the ship quickly disintegrated. Less than half an hour after its first shock, the Pacific sank, taking with it almost all of the passengers.

Nearly 300 people are believed to have died, making it both the region’s deadliest maritime disaster – and one of the most elusive wrecks. Only two people survived the freezing waters and cold temperatures of the fall.

Since the 1980s, six attempts have been made to locate the Pacific’s final resting place – and its alleged gold mine – but all have failed.

“The other searches failed because they relied entirely on the technology,” Hummel said. “We relied on two things: technology and physical evidence.”

Over the years commercial fishermen in the area have reported objects on the sea floor snagging their gear – a common frustration. On occasion, some have found coal in their fishing nets.

For Hummel, these were clues, especially after he and his team were able to use chemical analysis to link the coal samples to freight transported through the Pacific.

Also relying on the records of the two survivors, the team found a possible search area south of Cape Flattery. Last year they ran sonar over the site and found what they thought was wreckage – or just a rock formation on the ocean floor.

“There was never a ‘eureka’ moment… It was like every clue we found was consistent with the wreckage,” he said. “The site is so different from what people were expecting that it took a while to really convince me it was the right place.”

Earlier this year, a camera-equipped robot drove to the site and retrieved a worm-eaten piece of wood. Hundreds of meters away, the camera spotted impressions on the seabed that looked like the remains of a paddle wheel.

The team expects painstaking rescue efforts to begin next year, hoping to build a museum to commemorate the region’s worst ocean disaster. Under maritime law, Hummel believes it can claim a significant portion of what they salvage and is working to ensure that all existing rights, held by underwriters and former shipowners, are returned to the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance to secure clear title.

But he also says the discovery represents what he loves about years of research.

“You can’t really time travel, but by finding a wreck you can go back to a place where all things are from another time,” Hummel said. “You spend years studying the boat and the passengers, then if you’re lucky you’re the first to touch something they touched last.”

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