The SS Pacific founders off Cape Flattery with a loss of 275 lives on November 4, 1875.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 2/13/2009
  • Essay 8914
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On November 4, 1875, the SS Pacific, en route to San Francisco from Victoria, B.C. with approximately 275 passengers and crew, collides with the S/V Orpheus, 40 miles southwest of Cape Flattery. Both vessels continue on course, but the Pacific founders within 20 minutes and only two people will survive. The following day, the Orpheus will mistake the Cape Beale lighthouse on Vancouver Island for the beacon on Tatoosh Island and run aground in Barkley Sound. There are no casualties, but the ship is a total loss. In terms of fatalities, the foundering of the Pacific is among the worst maritime calamities ever recorded on the Pacific Coast.

A Vessel's Ups and Downs

The SS Pacific was a 876-ton side-wheel passenger steamship, 223 feet long and 33 feet six inches across the beam. The wooden-hulled vessel was built in New York in 1850 and ran for a time between the Isthmus of Panama and San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. In September 1858, the Pacific began San Francisco-to-Columbia River service for the Merchants Accommodation Line. On July 18, 1861, the ship was heading down the Columbia River, en route from Portland to Astoria, Oregon, when she struck Coffin Rock in the fog and sank. After considerable difficulty, the Pacific was raised, and the steamer Express came down from Portland with a fire truck to pump her out. The ship was repaired in San Francisco and continued in service until 1872 when she was retired and left to rot on the mudflats of San Francisco Bay.

When gold was discovered on the Stikine River in the Cassier District of northern British Columbia in the early 1870s, the Pacific, along with every old packet ship that could float, was resurrected to carry miners and speculators to Canada. The ship was purchased in January 1875 from the Pacific Mail Line by the Goodall, Nelson and Perkins Steamship Company of San Francisco and supposedly reconditioned at a cost of $40,000. The actual extent of her restoration was mostly cosmetic, but the Pacific was proclaimed as completely rebuilt and entirely seaworthy, as certified by the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service, established by an act of Congress in 1871. The ship was licensed to carry 203 passengers, 115 in first class and 88 in second class, and had a crew of 52. But, she carried just five lifeboats with a carrying capacity of only 160 persons. Her new captain was Jefferson Davis Howell (1841-1875), a veteran of the Civil War (1861-1865) and brother-in-law of Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), president of the Confederate States. The Pacific, scheduled to run between San Francisco, Victoria B.C., Seattle, and Tacoma made her reappearance in the Pacific Northwest in April 1875.

The S/V Orpheus was 1,100-ton, 200-foot, wooden-hulled, full-rigged sailing vessel, built in 1856 by the Rice and Mitchell shipyard at Chelsea, Massachusetts. On October 29, 1875, the Orpheus, owned by C. L. Taylor and Company of San Francisco, sailed in ballast from San Francisco to Nanaimo, B.C. to load coal. The vessel, with a crew of 21, was under the command of Captain Charles A. Sawyer (1839-1894). The Orpheus had been trading along the Pacific Coast for several months, but it was only her second trip up the coast of Washington to Vancouver Island.

The Fateful Day

At 9:30 a.m., Thursday, November 4, 1875, the SS Pacific steamed out of Esquimalt, her deck crammed with passengers. The exact number of people aboard was unknown. Thirty-five passengers had come on board in Puget Sound and the agent in Victoria sold tickets for another 132. On board, the purser sold tickets to more than 20 passengers whose names were never recorded by the ticketing agent, and many others scrambled aboard moments before departure. With a crew of 52, it was evident the ship departed on her last voyage with between 250 and 275 people aboard, which included many prominent Victorians, wealthy businessmen, numerous gold miners with pokes full of Cassier gold, an equestrian troupe and 41 Chinese laborers. 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.

Although seemingly an unimportant fact, the Pacific left Victoria one-half hour late. But often great calamities originate from relatively trivial events. The ship steamed slowly down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, passing Tatoosh Island at 4:00 p.m. In the open ocean, there was a freshening wind blowing from the south and a heavy swell with whitecaps, considerably slowing the Pacific's headway. By 8:00 p.m., the steamer was about 12 miles off the Washington coast and 30 miles south of Cape Flattery.

The night was overcast, with fine rain, and profoundly dark. The Pacific had only three crewmen on duty: the inexperienced third mate, an inexperienced helmsman, and one lookout. The overcrowded vessel had been listing heavily to starboard, making steering difficult, so Captain Howell ordered two port-side lifeboats be filled with water to set her back on an even keel. In addition, the ship was running without port and starboard lights; only the white masthead light was visible.

Meanwhile, the Orpheus was steering north along the Washington coast, scudding with the wind at about 12 knots. At 9:30 p.m., Captain Sawyer left the bridge in charge of second mate James G. Allen, with instructions to head toward the northwest, off shore, if he saw anything. A short while later, the second mate reported the Tatoosh Island light off the port bow, but Sawyer discerned it was an approaching vessel and turned his ship hard to port to keep out it its way. The sudden maneuver left the Orpheus almost dead in the water and Captain Sawyer could only watch as the other ship advanced without altering course. At the last minute, the steamship blew her whistle and reversed her engines, but struck the Orpheus a glancing blow on her starboard side, abaft the forward rigging. The steamer ran against the sailing vessel two more times, staving in side planks, breaking 40 feet of rail, and carrying away the chain plates and most of the rigging on her starboard side.

Just before the collision, Captain Sawyer's wife, Lillian, came on deck and together they watched the accident unfold. He hailed the steamer to stand by, but there was no reply. Sawyer's wife was outraged by the incident and attempted to board the offending vessel before they drifted apart, but Sawyer restrained her.

As the steamer slowly vanished into the darkness, Captain Sawyer turned all his attention to saving the Orpheus. The carpenter reported was the ship was taking on water and sinking, so he ordered the first mate make ready the lifeboats and man the pumps. When a close inspection of the hold proved the report false, Captain Sawyer ordered all hands turn to and repair damages. With the crew concentrating on the needs of the Orpheus, no attention was paid to the steamer. After determining his ship had not been badly damaged, Captain Sawyer scanned the horizon for lights, but the mystery ship was gone.

Onboard the Pacific, the third mate blew the steam whistle, followed a minute later by three sharp jolts. The steamer had just struck another ship a series of glancing blows on her starboard side. Captain Howell, who had retired to his cabin, rushed to the bridge. He saw the running lights of a sailing vessel off the starboard beam, drifting slowly away, and realized there had been a collision. It was soon evident the wooden hull had been breached and the Pacific was rapidly filling with water. Passengers began arriving on deck to see what had happened, adding to the general chaos.

Terrible Minutes and Hours

Henry F. Jelley (1854-1930), a passenger from London, Ontario, was awakened in his cabin by the collision. He went on deck to see what had happened and saw the running lights of a large sailing vessel in the distance, off the starboard quarter. When Jelly returned to his cabin, he noticed the Pacific was listing heavily to port and went to the pilot house. The engines were still operating and the steamer was moving ahead, but no one was at the helm. He heard someone say the vessel was sinking and went to the starboard side, forward of the paddlewheel where he saw several men trying unsuccessfully to launch a lifeboat.

Jelley went to a lifeboat on the port side, containing mostly women, and climbed in. Unfortunately, it had been partially filled with sea water earlier in the day and when the launch was cut loose from the davits, it immediately swamped and capsized. Jelley and four men manage to climb onto the bottom of the boat and could only watch as the women, weighted down by their clothes, drowned. Minutes later, the Pacific sank.

Sometime later, Jelley and another man left the bottom of the lifeboat and climbed aboard the wreckage of the pilot house. On Friday morning, the sea was running high and waves began washing over the men. But they managed to snag some life preservers floating by and used the attached lines to tie themselves to the wreckage. At about 4:00 p.m., Jelley's companion died and was soon carried into the sea.

By daybreak on Saturday, November 6, Jelley's raft had drifted into the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and he could see the coast of Vancouver Island. He sighted two vessels pass by in the distance, but was too far away to attract their attention. Finally, at about 10:00 a.m., a lookout on the bark Messenger spotted Jelley clinging to the floating pilot house and he was rescued. The ship took Jelley to Port Townsend where it was learned for the first time that the Pacific had struck another vessel and foundered. The U.S. Revenue Service Cutter Oliver Wolcott, commanded by Lieutenant Lewis Harwood, was dispatched to the scene of the wreck to search for survivors.

Severe storms had been pounding the Olympic Peninsula since the beginning of November. The telegraph lines were down and it wasn't until Monday noon, November 8, that Port Townsend was, once again, in wire communication with the outside world. That same day Jelley, a Canadian citizen, went to Victoria aboard the steamer North Pacific to give people there details of the grim tragedy.

The Ordeal of Neil O. Henly

Quartermaster Neil O. Henly (1855-1944) was sleeping in his bunk in the Pacific's forecastle when the collision occurred. He awakened to find sea water pouring into the ship's bow, submerging the crew's quarters. Henly rushed up to the main deck, and saw a large sailing vessel, with her starboard (green) running light, drifting away in the distance. The officers and crew were trying desperately to lower the lifeboats, but the panicky passengers were obstructing their every effort. Henly tried to help, but two of the lifeboats had been partially filled with water and rendered useless. The other boats lacked plugs and two were missing oars. Henly made ready one lifeboat and was immediately joined inside by 15 women and six men. As the boat was being lowered into the water, it struck the side of the ship and capsized, throwing its occupants into the water. Within minutes the steamer broke in two amidships and sank beneath the waves, leaving bits and pieces of wreckage and a mass of people, struggling to stay alive.

Henly swam to a section of the hurricane deck which had seven people clinging to it: Captain Howell, the second mate, a cook and four passengers, one a young female. Within a short period of time, the wind increased and a rising sea began washing over the survivors. At about 4:00 a.m. on Friday, big waves began washing over the makeshift raft, carrying away Captain Howell and the second mate, followed by the female and one male passenger. At about 9:00 a.m., the cook died from exposure and slid into the sea. At 4:00 p. m., the weather cleared and Henly could see land some 15 miles distant.

By Saturday morning, November 6, the other two men had died, leaving Henly alone. He saw a ship passing but it was too far away to attract attention. Henly spotted a wooden packing crate about five feet long, 18 inches wide and 12 inches deep floating by, dragged it onto the raft, and secured it to a stanchion. He used it as a shelter from the wind and waves and wedged himself inside to sleep.

At 4:00 a.m. on Monday, November 8, 1875, Henly's raft was drifting outside the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca when he heard a steamship nearby. He stood up and began shouting for help. A voice in the night answered his call and shortly thereafter the Revenue Cutter Oliver Wolcott hove into view. The cutter sent a longboat to investigate a large piece of flotsam and found Henly aboard, having survived an amazing 78 hours adrift on the open ocean.

The Mishap of the Orpheus

After colliding with the Pacific, the Orpheus laid to and, in the heavy weather, managed to set a few sails allowing her to navigate. As the ship slowly sailed toward the northwest at about two knots, the crew worked throughout the night and all day Friday making repairs to the rigging. That evening the Orpheus got underway again and set sail for the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But the ship had drifted too far north and in the darkness Captain Sawyer mistook the newly established light at Cape Beale for Cape Flattery.

At 5:00 a.m. on Saturday, November 6, the Orpheus sailed into Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island and ran aground on Tzartus Island. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but the ship proved a total loss. Upon reaching shore, Captain Sawyer, his wife, Lillian, 4-year-old daughter, Isabelle, and 20 crewmen were cared for by the Indians and by Captain Andrew D. Laing, the owner of several trading posts along Vancouver Island's coast. They camped on the shore in shelters made from the ship's canvas sails. Captain Sawyer hired a canoe to take his first mate to Victoria for help, but the weather was so wretched, the Indians refused to venture out. While awaiting rescue, the crew managed to strip the Orpheus of all her valuable stores and move them onto the shore.

Rescues and Failed Rescues 

After rescuing Henly, the Oliver Wolcott went cruising up the west coast of Vancouver Island. Lieutenant Harwood enlisted the aid of local Indians with canoes to search the shoreline for victims. The steamship Gussie Telfair headed south along the Olympic Peninsula coast with the same mission. Three bodies were found but no survivors.

A gale blew all day Tuesday, November 9 and Wednesday, November 10. Nevertheless, on Wednesday morning the Oliver Wolcott set sail for Barkley Sound, 35 miles north of Cape Flattery, and that afternoon encountered a canoe with six Indians and the first mate, heading toward Victoria. The party showed the cutter where the crew of the Orpheus was patiently awaiting rescue.

On Friday, Lieutenant Harwood took the Sawyers, the crew, and most of the stores to Port Townsend, then returned to Barkley Sound with pilot Peter Thompson to carefully examine the wreck. They confirmed Captain Sawyer's story that the Orpheus had been struck by the Pacific just abaft the forward rigging and heavily damaged. The cutter returned to Port Townsend, reporting the Indians had found nothing pertaining to the Pacific, and a further search for castaways was suspended.

Corpses and Questions

Vessels transiting the Strait of Juan de Fuca recovered a few floaters, but most of the bodies that were eventually found, about 20, washed up on beaches days later. On November 24, 1875, a Coroner's Inquest was held in Victoria, B.C., to investigate the circumstances surrounding the Pacific disaster. The inquest centered on the death of one representative victim, Thomas J. Farrell from San Francisco, whose body was found in Canadian waters. Testimony was elicited from Henly and Jelley, as well as some of the crew of the Orpheus. Captain Sawyer, who was subject to arrest in Canada, chose not to appear. In addition witnesses were called from Port Townsend who testified the Pacific's hull was rotten and she leaked badly. Lieutenant Harwood, master of the Oliver Wolcott, provided details of the damage sustained by the Orpheus. A segment of bow, found entangled in the Orpheus's rigging, was indicative of the Pacific's unsound condition.

On November 26, 1875, the coroner's jury found that the collision had been caused by the Orpheus crossing the Pacific's bow. But the jurors censured the officers and crew of the Pacific for being negligent and incompetent in their duties. They found the steamer should not have sunk after such a light impact and must have been in an unseaworthy condition. Further, the steamer had only five improperly equipped lifeboats with a maximum capacity of 160 persons. The jury declared Captain Sawyer guilty of manslaughter for leaving the scene without trying to determine what damage had been done to the Pacific. However, nothing ever came of the verdict.

Captain Sawyer's Troubles

In San Francisco, Captain Sawyer was accused in federal court of barratry by "willfully casting away his vessel" on Vancouver Island to destroy evidence. A preliminary hearing was begun on January 6, 1876, and concluded on January 8, with the defense moving the case against Captain Sawyer be dismissed on the ground that no willful or corrupt act had been shown. Sawyer testified that the Cape Beale lighthouse, which had only been in operation for a few months, was not on his nautical chart and, mistaking it for Tatoosh Island, inadvertently sailed into Barkley Sound, believing it to be the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

His testimony was corroborated by a letter from Captain J. T. Gilkey of the bark Messenger, which saved Henry Jelley, declaring he almost made the same mistake weeks earlier. The court ruled there was insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction and dismissed the charge against Sawyer.

Inspectors Inspecting Themselves

In conjunction with the trial, the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service District Office in San Francisco held a secret Court of Inquiry into the Pacific disaster. Captain Robert H. Waterman, Inspector of Hulls, and James Hillman, Inspector of Boilers, presided over the hearing, which was curious because it was Waterman who had certified the old steamship as seaworthy.

On January 11, 1876, Inspectors Waterman and Hillman published the findings of their official investigation. The press in San Francisco, which had criticized the secrecy, considered the report a blatant cover-up with Captain Sawyer as their scapegoat. As expected, the inspectors concluded the Orpheus bore most of the responsibility for the collision by steering across the Pacific's bow. They were, however, unable to account for the failure of the steamship to evade or stop when a collision became imminent.

The inspectors generously acquitted Captain Sawyer "of any intentional disregard of the duties of humanity," but then went on to castigate him for his inaction after the collision, resulting in the some 275 deaths. They magnanimously absolved the Steamboat Inspection Service of any responsibility stating that a few days before the "thoroughly overhauled" Pacific was put into service," her bottom was carefully examined by the Inspector of Hulls" and she found to be "in a perfectly seaworthy condition." When the steamship hit the stout sailing vessel, the hull breached due to her lighter and "therefore much weaker" construction. The inspectors ended the report with the self-serving conclusion that it basically made no difference whether the Pacific was old or new, the outcome would probably have been the same.

Once the public's interest in the Pacific disaster subsided, Captain Sawyer, a mariner from boyhood, was given command of another vessel and sailed for several more years. In the late 1880s, he retired from seafaring and settled in Port Townsend with his wife, Lillian, and daughter, Isabelle. Captain Sawyer was deeply wounded by the criticism leveled at him for not standing by and rescuing the steamer's passengers. His colleagues, however, believed that his actions had been exactly what any master of a vessel would have done in a similar crisis. But he continued to be haunted by the guilt which cast a pall over the rest of his life. A few years after he retired, Captain Sawyer became ill and developed heart problems. He died on October 6, 1894, of congestive heart failure. In March 1902, Lillian brought the remains of Captain Sawyer to his ancestral home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, for burial. She was also from Gloucester and relocated there, becoming the proprietor of a hotel.

The Lives of Neil Henly

Having cheated death, Neil O. Henly, a Scottish immigrant, lived a very busy life. After the Pacific disaster, he remained in Victoria for about a month, working at the Royal Hotel and then went to San Francisco. He was again employed by the Goodall, Nelson and Perkins Steamship Company and sailed on their vessels for 15 months. After that, Henly became quartermaster on the Revenue Cutter Corwin, operating in Alaskan waters, and remained with the ship for two years. He also ventured into the Cassiar gold fields and lost a season there, along with most of his earnings. In 1880, Henly went to Port Townsend and joined the crew of Revenue Cutter Oliver Wolcott. In 1883, he took up residence in Steilacoom (Pierce County), did a stint as town marshal, worked as a prison guard at the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary, and married Marcella Catherine Rigney (1862-1950) on December 31, 1885.

During the Spanish-American War (1898), Henly returned to sea as quartermaster aboard a troop transport in the Philippine Islands. In 1899, he returned to McNeil Island and built a 24-foot sloop for the penitentiary, making the mail and supply runs to Steilacoom much faster and safer. He soon became Captain Henly, Superintendent of Boats, a position he held for 22 years. In 1911, the prison constructed a shipyard building where he built its first powerboat, the John G. Sargent, a 46-foot launch that served the institution for 50 years. He retired in 1921.

Captain Henly was a member of the Pierce County Pioneer and Historical Society, Washington State Historical Society, Veterans of Foreign Wars, kept records for Western State Hospital, and helped organize the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce and served as its first president. The Henlys had seven children: Eugenia, Neil, Elizabeth, Margaret, Mary Alice, Anna, and Bernard. Captain Henly died in Steilacoom on March 13, 1944, and was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Tacoma.

Henry Jelly's Remaining Decades

Henry F. Jelley a civil engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), was returning to his home in Port Stanley, Ontario, when he was shipwrecked. His traveling companion was colleague A. Frazer, who drowned. After testifying at hearings in Victoria, B.C., and San Francisco, Jelley headed back to Canada. According to an article that appeared in the Puget Sound Weekly Courier on March 12, 1880, Neil Henly, who was detailing his life since the disaster, said the previous year, he saw an account of Henry Jelley's death in Ireland. Jelley allegedly "fell heir to a large fortune some time after his rescue, but did not live long to enjoy it."

But according to Canadian historian and author Robert C. Belyk, Jelley returned to the family farm in Port Stanley on Lake Erie. Later he sailed to Ireland, got married, then returned to Port Stanley where he farmed and engaged in commercial fishing. Jelley, age 77, died in Canada in 1930.

Honoring a Lost Friend

Although lost at sea, Jefferson Davis Howell was not forgotten by his many friends in Puget Sound. They had a 10-foot-tall sandstone obelisk erected in his memory at the Seattle Masonic Cemetery, established in 1872 and renamed the Lake View Cemetery in 1890.

On the base of the monument is chiseled the simple epitaph: "Captain J. D. Howell, perished at sea on the steamship Pacific, November 4, 1875, aged 34 years."


Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle, Vol. 2 (Chicago: S. J. Clark Publishing Co., 1916), pp. 650-1; Robert C. Belyk, Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast (New York: Wiley, 2001), pp. 37-61; George E. Blankenship, Lights and Shades of Pioneer Life on Puget Sound (Olympia: 1923), pp. 5-7; Thomas W. Prosch, Chronological History of Seattle (Seattle: T. W. Prosch, 1921), pp. 236-7; E. W. Wright, Lewis and Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (New York: Antiquarian Press, 1895, 1961) pp. 223-228; James A. Gibbs, Shipwrecks off Juan De Fuca (Portland: Binfords and Mort, 1968), pp. 31-41; James A. Gibbs, Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast (Portland: Binfords and Mort [1951], 1962), pp. 15-25; James A. Gibbs, Disaster Log of Ships (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1971), pp. 65-68; James G. McCurdy, By Juan de Fuca's Strait (Portland: Binfords and Mort, 1937), pp.240-243; J. A. Eckrom, "The Wreck of the Steamship Pacific," True West Magazine, March 1985, pp. 30-33; "SS Pacific History," The Marine Digest, December 28, 1985, p. 6; "Disaster at Sea," Steilacoom, Historical Museum Quarterly, Spring 1977, p. 1; Henry Woods, "Steam Navigation from San Francisco to Victoria and Puget Sound -- II," Pacific Maritime Review, September 1930, pp. 392-393; R. J. Alexander, "Pacific Coast Steamships: No. 4, SS Pacific," Ibid., July 1936, pp. 232-233; "Survivor of the Pacific Gives Facts," The Maritime Digest, January 4, 1936, p. 2; E. T. Short, "After Many Years: Tragic Wreck of Steamer Pacific," The Tacoma Times, May 26, 1942, p. 6; "Sea Captain Scans His Long Career," Tacoma News Tribune, January 1, 1936, p. 1; "Death Calls Captain Henly," Ibid., March 14, 1944, p. 14; "Coast's Greatest Ship Disaster Killed 300." The Seattle Star, July 10, 1937, p. 3; "Pioneers Relive Old Days; Enjoy Hi-Yu Muck-a-muck," The Seattle Times, June 7, 1942, p. 17; C. T. Conover, "Just Cogitating: When the Pacific Sank with 275 Aboard," Ibid., January 8, 1953, p. 34; Lucile McDonald, "The Pacific -- A Jinxed Ship," Seattle Times Magazine, April 7, 1968, pp. 12-3; James R. Warren, "Death Caught Up With the Steamer Pacific," Seattle Post Intelligencer, June 7, 1981, p. C-6; "Mr. Henly Is Now Quartermaster," Puget Sound Weekly Courier (Olympia, W.T.) March 12, 1880, p. 1; "Died Last Night," Port Townsend Daily Leader, October 7, 1893, p. 4; "Captain Sawyer's Remains," Ibid., March 5, 1902, p. 4; "The Steamer Pacific," The New York Times, November 10, 1875, p. 1; "The Lost Ocean Vessels," Ibid., November 12, 1875, p. 1; "The Pacific Disaster," Ibid., November 13, 1875, p. 1;"Terrible Scenes at the Wreck," Ibid., November 25, 1875, p. 2; "Captain Sawyer Discharged," Ibid., November 17, 1876, p. 5; "The Pacific Disaster," Ibid., January 23, 1876, p. 5; "Captain Bob Waterman," The Oakland Tribune, January 12, 1876, p. 2; Jim Kalafus, "The Public Be Dammed: One Black Week in 1875," Gare Maritime website accessed November 15, 2008 (
Note: This essay was corrected on November 1, 2017.

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