Long-lost photo found of mysterious shipwreck passenger

Apr 7, 2023, 7:02 AM | Updated: 12:16 pm


The only known image of Fanny Palmer (L) was recently discovered in the collection of the Royal BC Museum by shipwreck hunter Matt McCauley; Palmer was one of the most well-known victims of the wreck of the steamship PACIFIC off the Washington cost in 1875. Palmer is buried in Victoria, BC. (Left: Image I-66189 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum; Right: Image of Fanny Palmer’s grave, circa 1875, courtesy Matt McCauley)

(Left: Image I-66189 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum; Right: Image of Fanny Palmer’s grave, circa 1875, courtesy Matt McCauley)

The local explorers who located the long-lost 1875 wreck of the steamship PACIFIC off the Washington coast have found another priceless treasure: a photo of one the most well-known passengers.

It was late last year when Seattle’s Morning News broke the story that the PACIFIC had been found, and work continues to set up research and exploration of the wreck off the Washington coast.

In the meantime, from a maritime disaster where some estimates say that as many as 500 people were aboard the 225-foot-long sidewheel steamer when it sank, the dryland continues to yield treasures on a more human scale.

Matt McCauley is half of the team leading the work on the ship. He told KIRO Newsradio about one of the most well-known passengers lost when the PACIFIC went down near Cape Flattery: a young socialite from Victoria, BC, 18-year-old Fanny Palmer.

McCauley says there was much written about Fanny Palmer in the aftermath, and with good reason.

First, Palmer’s body washed ashore on San Juan Island, not very far as the crow flies from her family home in Victoria. She was one of the few passengers wearing a lifebelt, but the cold November water was simply not survivable for more than a few minutes.

When a funeral was held for Fanny Palmer in Victoria, it was attended by hundreds or perhaps thousands of people. McCauley also says there were strange backstories circulating about Palmer telling friends before she left that she feared she’d never see Victoria again, and her mother also had some kind of bad premonition about her daughter’s trip.

McCauley has been conducting exhaustive research on the history of the ship and about the passengers, but he had never been able to find an image of Fanny Palmer. But recently, with help from an archivist at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, McCauley tracked down a photo of Palmer taken less than a year before the 1875 wreck.

“It’s never appeared in any of the books or anything else over the years on the PACIFIC,” McCauley told KIRO Newsradio. “It’s just been sitting up there, and so finally, we brought that to light.”

But any excitement about finding the photo was tempered, McCauley says, by melancholy.

“It was kind of sad knowing what happened,” McCauley said. “But it’s still nice to be able to put a face with this woman that we’ve read so much about.”

McCauley described what Fanny Palmer looked like 148 years ago.

“She’s just, to me, a very nice looking – and when I say nice, she looks like a really nice person from her face and her expression,” McCauley said. “And she’s got big beautiful eyes, and she’s just in a conventional portrait-type pose in the attire of that time.”

“So it’s a rather poignant image,” McCauley continued. “[As you’re] looking into her eyes and thinking less than a year from the time this photo was taken, she died in a really bad way.”

McCauley also reports recently tracking down and interviewing the granddaughter of Neil Henly, one of the only two survivors of the wreck of the PACIFIC. He says Henly’s granddaughter, who is now in her 90s, is probably the only living descendant who personally knew one of the survivors.

“As I’m sitting there talking to her, I’m just in a state of awe [about] the one degree of separation,” McCauley said. “I’m sitting in the presence of somebody that knew Neil Henly, she was 13 or 14 years old when he died [in the 1940s]. She remembered him really, really well.”

Much work remains onshore to gather the stories of as many passengers as possible, McCauley says, as the team prepares to further explore the actual wreck sometime in the year ahead.

And though it’s been nearly a century and a half since the ship went down, McCauley isn’t daunted by the work of tracing and tallying the human cost of the disaster.

“Even something from 1875,” McCauley said, reflecting on the long tail of history trailing behind the wreck of the PACIFIC, “In a way there, in the scheme of time, it’s not that long ago.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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