Advertisement
News

A fortune in gold went down with the ship

Several weeks ago, my Sun colleague Frank D. Roylance reported that Robert D. Ballard, discoverer of the RMS Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck, was exploring a 45-foot wreck, an estimated 1,500 years old, laying 1,000 feet beneath the surface of the Black Sea.

This coincided with news a little closer to home that, after laboring for 10 years, salvers from Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Fla., had finally found the wreck of the SS Republic resting quietly in deep Atlantic waters some 100 miles east of Savannah, Ga.

Advertisement

Searchers had scanned 1,500 square miles of ocean bottom searching for the remains of the Republic, which sank in a storm on Oct. 25, 1865.

Video images revealed parts of the ship's steam engine, a paddle box and a rudder.

Advertisement

Members of the Odyssey team claim that the ship, which is beyond the jurisdiction of the state of Georgia or the federal government, carried an estimated 20,000 gold coins, valued at perhaps $150 million today. The coins (worth about $400,000 in 1865) were being transported to New Orleans to help finance post-Civil War reconstruction.

Built in the Baltimore yard of John A. Robb, the ship was launched Aug. 13, 1853, as the SS Tennessee. The steam-powered vessel was 210 feet long and carried sails and two masts.

It began service on the Baltimore-Charleston route, but after two years of unprofitable operation, was put up for auction. With no bidders, the ship was sent to Le Havre, France, where it took on cargo bound for the United States. Battered on the high seas and badly in need of coal, the ship arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In 1855, it was purchased by S. de Agreda Jove & Co., which operated the vessel between North American and South American ports. A year later, it was sold again to Charles Morgan's Texas Line, and began transporting passengers heading for California by way of Nicaragua.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, the Tennessee was seized by Confederate Maj. Gen. Mansfield Lovell on Jan. 15, 1862, and pressed into service as a blockade runner. After the capture of New Orleans by Union forces four months later, the ship was turned over to Adm. David G. Farragut, who equipped it with armaments and made it his flagship.

The ship, renamed the USS Mobile, fought in the Battle of Mobile Bay, one of the great naval engagements of the Civil War. Hull damage caused by a storm in March 1865 was deemed by marine surveyors too costly for repair, and the ship was sold for $25,000.

Repaired and renamed the SS Republic, the vessel was placed in service by William H. Robeson on the New York-New Orleans route, and several months later was acquired by the H.B. Crowell Steamship Co.

The Republic's last voyage began on Oct. 18, 1865, when it cast off lines and slowly steamed down New York Bay and around Sandy Hook into the Atlantic. It was carrying nearly 80 crew members and passengers.

Advertisement

Five days out, the vessel was off the coast of Georgia when it encountered a heavy gale, which later turned into a hurricane.

The heavy seas disabled the steamer's paddlewheels. Meanwhile, donkey steam boilers supplied steam to the pumps, which vainly worked to keep the holds dry. With the ship drifting, the donkey boilers failed and water began filling the hold.

As the doomed ship continued to wallow helplessly in the storm and water rose in its engine room, the crew prepared to evacuate the vessel and place its passengers in four lifeboats.

"Even after throwing much of her cargo overboard, she made 1,000 gallons of water per minute. The Norfolk Post says she leaks 2,000 gallons per minute at the wharf, and it requires all the efforts of the pumps to keep her from sinking. The passengers have published resolutions condemning the steamship company for sending the vessel to sea," reported The Sun.

Late in the afternoon of Oct. 25, the Republic plunged to the bottom of the ocean, killing 17 people. Survivors scattered in lifeboats and a raft; several days later, 62 people were rescued by passing vessels.

"The second of four boats which, together with a raft, put off from the ill-fated steamer Republic, wrecked on the Georgia coast, about the 25th ult. arrived safely at Charleston, S.C., Tuesday last," reported The Sun.

Advertisement

"Yesterday, 23 of the officers and crew of the wrecked steamer were brought to New York by the steamship Guiding Star, and others from the same wreck were also taken to that destination by Quaker City; among the rest, Capt. Young and Capt. Hawthorn, wife and two children."

Odyssey employees expect that it will take several months to remove the gold coins and to complete the archaeological recovery.


Advertisement