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Seattle-based salvage company preparing to recover pieces of maritime history off Washington coast

A Seattle-based salvage company located the wreckage last year using sonar more than 1,000 feet deep off the coast and announced the discovery in December.

NEAH BAY, Wash. — A Seattle crew is preparing for a series of dives off Washington's coast to salvage some of the SS Pacific and some of its gold.

In the winter of 1875, the SS Pacific was traveling from Seattle to San Francisco when it collided with a sailing ship in the night and sank off Cape Flattery near Neah Bay. At least 325 people were killed and only two people survived.

Also on board were tons of oats and hops, hides, 230 tons of coal, and a substantial amount of gold.

A Seattle-based salvage company located the wreckage last year using sonar more than 1,000 feet deep off the coast and announced the discovery in December.

Now, with legal documents granting Rockfish, Inc. exclusive salvage rights, CEO Jeff Hummel and his team are making preparations for their first dive. 

"Our next step is totally different because now we have to worry about detecting, you know, metal and we have to worry about recovering these different-sized objects," said Sarah Haberstroh, who is leading the team running remotely operated vehicles for the mission.

The team is currently building three larger remote vehicles to handle the harsh conditions of the ocean and what is anticipated to be heavier lifting. The goal is to run two at a time; one for finding gold, the other for collecting the gold, either by grabbing it or vacuuming it up.

"So, you have to have a robot that can do, instead of just three functions, it has to be able to do like twenty functions," Haberstroh said.

The team is preparing for a stronger current, making it difficult to navigate. Plans for a new guidance system and the larger remote vehicles should help with that before they head out to the ocean later this summer to begin the search.

Hummel and his team have done extensive research on the S-S Pacific's West Coast run between San Francisco and Victoria, B.C. Hummel believes there were more people aboard than the official estimate - many of whom were prospectors.

"There was actually 50-100 people who had gold on their person in substantial quantities," Hummel said. "And so, when they ended up in the water, they had to decide, am I going to sink to the bottom or am I going to let go of my gold? And I would think the obvious conclusion is that they would have let go of their gold."

Based on information from an article in the Daily British Colonist newspaper dated Nov. 9, 1875, up to $17 million in gold could have been on the ship when it sank.

But gold is only half the prize. 

Hummel said they expect to find items made of wool, cotton and leather, along with personal photographs and other items.

"It's our responsibility to preserve those and put them on display so people can enjoy this incredible time capsule to a very specific moment in northwest history," Hummel said.

The other major undertaking will be pulling one of the paddlewheels out of the mud and floating all 40,000 pounds to the surface. Hummel said that will take a larger boat and barge. That mission is still a few years out.

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