The Loss

Victoria Harbor 1875, Photo BC Archives

On November 4, 1875, the SS Pacific left Victoria, British Columbia with about 275 passengers (most likely more) and about 50 crew. Later that evening the Pacific collided with the sailing ship S/V Orpheus. Crew on the Orpheus had seen the masthead light of the Pacific and mistakenly identified it as the light at Cape Flattery. This simple mistake was compounded by the fact that the captain had gone below to study charts before making a turn towards the Strait of Juan de Fuca. His last instructions before heading below were to “starboard the helm” which means to turn to port if a light was seen. The crew changed course while the captain was below deck and crossed directly in front of the Pacific.  The crew on the Pacific did not see the Orpheus until she was close ahead. They tried to back down, but it was too late. The Orpheus was moving slowly, her sails luffing to avoid a collision. The impact of the collision was apparently slight, with the Pacific‘s bow striking the Orpheus just aft of the main hatch, before glancing off and again striking her further aft at the mainmast shrouds. The two vessels scraped along each other, the Pacific butting the Orpheus a third time at the mizzenmast chains, and then the two vessels continued in opposite directions.

The Orpheus, painted in 1861 by artist William Gay Yorke.

“…I woke up with the crash. Jumped out of my bunk, the water rushing through the bow; saw all hands rush on the hurricane deck… the ship fell into the trough of the sea and became unmanageable, the fires being extinguished; all was confusion, the passengers crowding into the boats which the officers and crew were trying to clear away…”

– Neil Henly
Quartermaster aboard the Pacific and one of only two survivors

The lifeboats were partly filled with water prior to the collision because of attempts by the crew to keep the vessel on an even keel. The one boat lowered from the deck slammed against the side of the steamer, dumping all occupants into the water.  Passenger Henry L. Jelly, 22, recalled the difficulty of releasing the lifeboats:


…tried to get the boat off, but we could not budge the boat; … the boat I was near was partly full of water; we could not get her off at all; I think it was about an hour from the time the steamer struck up to the time when she listed to port so much that the port boat was let into the water and cut loose from the davits; I was in this boat which, when it touched the water, began to fill and turn over. I crawled up on the bottom of the boat and helped several others up with me … I think about all the ladies were in our boat, and when she upset, they all fell into the water and, I fear, they were all drowned

~Henry Jelly
Surviving passenger.
Survivor Henry F. Jelly

The Pacific sank shortly thereafter, giving two or three lurches “with a crashing noise.” Jelly and another man succeeded in climbing atop the pilot house which was floating by.

“…we held on to a copper wire that came out of the top; next morning got some life preservers floating near the house, and with their ropes lashed myself and my comrade on to the house I and my comrade were on the top of the pilot house all of the 5th until about 4:00 PM, when he died and I cut him loose; the sea was running very high all day, and I think my comrade was drowned by the waves washing over him, he not being strong enough to hold his head up and the waves constantly washing over us…

The sea was filled with wreckage and the bark Messenger picked up Jelly the second day after the foundering.  One day later the USRC Oliver Wolcott rescued Henly, 21, who recalled his ordeal floating on the hurricane deck along with one woman and six other men.

“At this time it came on to blow furiously with rough and heavy sea . . . the captain and three others were washed off and sank.”

At daylight the seas were heavy, and over the course of the next day, one by one his other companions died. Henly succeeded in pulling a floating dry goods box onto the raft which sheltered him for the next two days until his rescue.

At a subsequent inquest it was found that the Pacific had boats for only 160 persons; that there were only three men on watch, including the helmsman; that her men were untrained and inexperienced. The Orpheus was found guilty of not keeping to her course and of not making sufficient effort to render all possible help.

The Region

The vessel started in Victoria, British Columbia and ended somewhere off the northwest tip of the Washington Coast. During the day the vessel traveled westward through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Approximate course of the Pacific, 4 Nov 1875, drawn on a 1854 Chart of the area.