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No takers for long-lost gold in sunken ship found off of B.C. coast

An estimated $11 million worth of gold bullion and dust is believed to have gone down with the SS Pacific in the Salish Sea in 1875.

No one has laid claim to any of the 4,000 ounces of gold believed to be on board a ship that sank off of the B.C. coast in 1875.

According to Matt McCauley, spokesman for the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance, there were no supported claims made by the descendants of any of the passengers or crew of the SS Pacific that sank on Nov. 4, 1875, carrying at least 275 souls, including crew, paying passengers and children. Only two survived.

In November 2022, it was revealed through documents lodged in the U.S. district court in Seattle that the wreck of the 70-metre, wooden, coal-powered sidewheeler had been found by a U.S. salvage company called Rockfish Inc.

Rockfish had been searching for the wreck and its golden bounty since 2016 using sonar and a towed camera sled. The search site was selected based on records from 1875 that show the ship went down southwest of Cape Flattery at the end of the Olympic Peninsula, and from more recent information from commercial fishermen who noted that their trawling gear was getting caught up on something on the ocean floor.

According to the court records, “based on the location of the wreck site, dimensions of the wreck, presence of a pair of eight-metre circular objects in the debris field consistent with the dimensions of S.S. Pacific’s paddle wheels, and the presence of coal in the debris field, Rockfish believes the vessel is the wreck of the S.S. Pacific.”

Those court records stated the wreck was located at around 500 m deep on the western edge of the Juan de Fuca Strait. By comparison, the Titanic sits at around 4,000 m in the Atlantic Ocean.

Under maritime law, Rockfish won court approval to salvage what it can from the wreckage, saying it will be used to create a maritime museum in co-operation with the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance.

However, this was granted on the condition that the company acknowledge the law of finds, that entitles descendants of a person who carried gold on the ship to claim that gold.

If the claim is granted by the court, the claimant would have to pay Rockfish a fee for recovering the gold.

McCauley said a preliminary claim was made by a descendant of Francis Garesche, who was a Wells Fargo agent escorting Wells Fargo gold dust destined for the San Francisco U.S. Mint.

“But he has not provided any documentation or other evidence that Francis Garesche had any personally owned gold or other valuables with him on the ship” McCauley said. “The descendent would have the burden of proof of establishing that to the court for his claim to be considered.”

The Pacific was built in New York in 1850 and served throughout the U.S.

The ship was partly sunk after hitting rocks in the Columbia River in 1861, but was put back into service, ending up on the Victoria to San Francisco route serving B.C.’s short-lived Cassiar Gold Rush.

On the cold November morning of 1875, the vessel left Esquimalt in poor weather. Many of the passengers were gold miners taking their treasure back to San Francisco before the winter set in.

A historical paper written about the sinking states the ship was carrying “prominent Victorians, wealthy businessmen, numerous gold miners with pokes full of Cassiar gold, an equestrian troupe and 41 Chinese labourers.

“In addition, the Pacific’s hold was laden with 2,000 sacks of oats, 300 bales of hops, 261 animal hides, 11 casks of furs, 31 barrels of cranberries, 10 cords of wood bolts, 280 tons of coal, 18 tons of general merchandise, 10 tons of sundries, six horses, two buggies, two cases of opium and a strongbox containing $79,200 in cash. The gold in private hands was estimated to be at least $100,000.”

In 1875, that represented around 4,000 ounces of gold that today would be worth close to $11 million.

There were around 100 people on the ship who were permanent residents of Victoria, including Sewell Moody who founded Moodyville as the first settlement in North Vancouver.

In 1873, the first year of the Cassiar Gold Rush, miners were pulling in $200 a day worth of gold when the average monthly wage was $25, so the wealth of many of those on board the ill-fated ship was staggering.

At around 9:30 p.m. the sailing ship Orpheus (travelling from San Francisco to Nanaimo to collect coal) noted the lights of another ship to the right and turned left to avoid a collision.

The Pacific struck the side of the Orpheus and sank within 20 minutes. The dramatic loss of life — there were only two survivors — was due in part to the poor condition of the vessel, too few lifeboats and the fact some of those lifeboats had earlier been filled with water to stop the ship listing in heavy seas.

The Orpheus didn’t sink, but the sinking of the Pacific remains the deadliest maritime disaster recorded in the waters off the Pacific Northwest.

Artifact recovery work is expected to begin in summer 2024.