Granddaughter of shipwreck survivor shares memories of 1875 disaster

Jul 19, 2023, 10:00 AM | Updated: Jul 20, 2023, 10:56 am

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Judy Adams' grandfather Neil Henly, in center right of the old family photo Adams is holding, was one of just two survivors of the wreck of the sidewheeler PACIFIC in 1875. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

When KIRO Newsradio broke the news last December of the discovery of the 1875 wreck of a sidewheel steamer called the “PACIFIC” off Cape Flattery, the story included the fact that hundreds of lives had been lost when the ship went down, and just two people survived.

The granddaughter of one of those two survivors, who knew her grandfather when she was a child, is in her 90s and lives in Steilacoom. That’s where KIRO Newsradio paid a visit to hear Judy Adams’ memories of her very lucky grandfather.

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Adams’ grandfather was named Neil Henly (though many newspaper accounts over decades of stories also spell his name “Henley”). He was a member of the crew, about 20 years old, and serving as quartermaster on a sidewheel steamer that had left Victoria and headed for San Francisco on November 4, 1875.

Henly was off duty and asleep in his bunk late that night when the PACIFIC collided with another vessel, ORPHEUS. The PACIFIC began breaking apart and sank in about 20 minutes.

Hundreds of people went into the water in the cold, darkness, and confusion. Henly managed to climb on a large piece of debris from the ship with a handful of other people, all of whom ultimately perished.

Henly was floating in the cold November weather in the Strait of Juan de Fuca for an incredible 80 hours before a Coast Guard cutter rescued him.

By all accounts, surviving the wreck didn’t stop Henly from returning to sea for several more years. Eventually, he married a woman from Ireland, and they raised a family in a big house in Steilacoom.

They also had a cabin on McNeil Island, where Henly worked at the federal prison. The family was forced to give up the cabin in the 1930s when the government took over the entire island for the prison.

Adams is 93. She was 13 when her grandfather Henly passed away 80 years ago. KIRO Newsradio visited her in Steilacoom last week – on what turned out to be Henly’s birthday – to hear her memories of one of the luckiest people ever.

“He had a big mustache. He was not a very tall man and kind of bent over, but he was very active,” Adams told KIRO Newsradio. “And I remember him in the big house in Steilacoom, and he had a den. I liked playing in this den. I remember him tapping the barometer and being very conscious of the weather. And he kept a big jar of peppermint candy, not the striped peppermint candy, they were big, round, [and] white or pink.

“And they packed quite a wallop,” Adams said.

Along with being a devoted father and grandfather, Henly was also a talented woodworker and generally handy guy. He was originally from Scotland, and he’d been a sailor and a boatbuilder, and his presence loomed large for a young Adams, in sight and sound.

“He would sing while he worked. He’d hum and sing ditties, you know, sea ditties. He’d clean them up a bit maybe for the kids’ ears,” Adams said. “And Scottish songs, too. He’d sing ‘Loch Lomond.’”

Prompted by a pesky radio historian, Adams sang a few bars.

While it’s well-known in certain maritime historical circles and is cited in old books about Northwest shipwrecks, the fact that Henly had remarkably survived a terrible tragedy where hundreds of other people died was a little more understated within his family.

Adams says her grandfather’s unlikely tale of survival wasn’t a secret, but it wasn’t exactly out in the open, either.

“I knew it, and the family was aware of it but never talked about [the fact that] Grampa was in a wreck at sea, and he was the only one of two survivors,” Adams said. “And it was no big deal. He never spoke of it.

“He gave interviews,” Adams continued. “And in the interviews that he gave, he was very open about it but never talked about it in the family. It was never a topic of discussion.

“Certainly, as I grew older, I realized the significance of that, but to him, it was just an event that happened in his life,” Adams said.

It was during one of those many newspaper interviews when a very young Adams overheard her grandfather Henly recounting one chilling detail. It’s something that has remained with her ever since.

“I did hear him say one time that he would never forget the screams of the people that were drowning,” Adams said. “And [there was] nothing they could do, you know. They were calling them to come to them.”

Along with Adams in Steilacoom that day were two of her daughters. Adams was widowed at a relatively young age and raised 10 kids on her own after her husband unexpectedly died when he was in his 40s. It’s a little sobering to think that Adams and all of her children and all of their children wouldn’t be here were it not for fate smiling on young Henly on a dark November night nearly 150 years ago.

Adams’ daughter Joan Brown, who is a great-granddaughter of Henly, never met him, of course. But she says the way he lived his life, the family stories that have been handed down, and the details of the shipwreck shared with the family by Jeff Hummel and Matt McCauley – the two researchers who located the wreck – have given her a good sense of what made him tick.

“He had the courage and the perseverance and the wherewithal to live life without fear,” Brown said. “And that, to me, just gave him kind of a boost, that security of knowing that I’ve survived the worst, and I can do this.”

Adams says her grandfather lived as if he had a mission to make the most of everything. He was an active member of the community in Steilacoom and knew everyone in town when he’d walk down to the dock with his young granddaughter to get a bowl of soup at a waterfront diner.

When she was a little kid in the 1930s, the family would go back and forth from that same dock in Steilacoom to Henly’s cabin on McNeil Island in a small open boat.

“It had a bench on either side, and he would sit us all, and that’s where we sat and didn’t move, all very according to ballast,” Adams said, chuckling at the memory. “And my aunt usually was aft with the tiller, and my grandfather would be up fiddling with the engine and what-not, and off we’d go” across Puget Sound to the island.

Did Grandpa make the kids wear life jackets?

“Hell no,” Adams said, laughing. “No, no such thing. I often think about that when I see everybody in lifejackets [nowadays], and I think, Good Lord, we traveled the Sound in rowboats and everything else.”

She says even back in the 1930s, caution at sea wasn’t thrown entirely to the wind.

“They had flotation cushions that we sat on, and they had a handle on each side,” Adams said. “And that was it.”

The discovery last year of the wreck by Hummel and McCauley has got Adams thinking about a lot more than just flotation cushions. It’s stirred up many deep feelings as she’s been thinking about her grandfather and revisiting the old memories and family stories of the now-distant past.

However, 25 years ago, when she saw a certain movie about a much more famous shipwreck, the story didn’t resonate much, as far as her sea chantey-singing grandfather Henly was concerned.

“It didn’t at that time, no. The time I saw that, I wasn’t connecting it, particularly with my Grandpa then,” Adams acknowledged. “But you know, in hindsight, yes.”

What would Henly have thought of the theme song sung by Celine Dion? Would he have hummed that in his workshop?

“I’m not so sure he would have,” Adams said, laughing. “I don’t think he would have approved of that.”

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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Granddaughter of shipwreck survivor shares memories of 1875 disaster