Friday, January 18, 2013

Treasure of the SS Republic

As seen in Gold Prospectors magazine Sept/Oct 2012 Article by: Russ Balbirona.  Russ is a Freelance writer and treasure hunter based in Wisconsin
October 23rd 1865: Having departed from New York, the Republic is battling to keep on her southbound trek towards the financially bedraggled city of New Orleans.  Aboard are passengers from all walks of society; some are duty bound,  while others seek to make a fresh start after enduring the bloodletting hardships of the Civil War. For most passengers this becomes what is yet to be a mostly sleepless night as they take shelter in their berths.  “The ship began to labor heavily, and during the night shipped heavy seas, so that we were wet in our berths and did not sleep a wink.” passenger Col. William Nichols wrote in a letter to his wife.

Captain Edward Young pilots the ship in a desperate, yet doomed attempt to outrun a storm that rapidly turns into what he later describes as the “perfect hurricane”.  The storm grips the Republic in its steely nautical embrace and Capt. Young realizes he cannot coerce it to let loose the Republic. Deciding his best chance is to attempt to weather the storm, he turns her into the gale.

The morning of the 24th brings no relief; with every passing hour the gale increases in strength.
 “It was as much as a man could do to walk from one side of the ship to the other” writes Col. Nichols.
Unknown to the passengers, the ships engine has failed and cannot be revived.  The Republic was adrift and in desperate trouble as she rolled in the trough of hurricane sized waves; tossed to and fro like a child’s toy boat, utterly helpless and at the mercy of the wind, waves and current of the Gulf Stream.

By 9 A.M, the ship  springs a leak; water rises in the hold.  Capt. Young fires up a small auxiliary boiler in an effort to power the ships pumps that were fighting a hopeless battle against the water that was surging into the ships hold. Unable to keep pace with the water filling the hold, the crew and passengers start throwing cargo overboard in an effort to lighten the ship.   After several hours they discover the water had risen even higher.

 “We found that the water had gained on us” writes Col. Nichols. “And all hands were set to work bailing the ship.”

 Though they are all exhausted from heaving the contents of the ship’s cargo holds into the sea, both crew and passengers head back below to bail water.

“I went into the hold of the ship and took my station to pass water in the buckets, and there I stood for twelve and one-half mortal hours…” continues Col. Nichols.

Rank, age, class and gender be damned - all those aboard familiar with battle or not took up arms and joined in the fight for their lives.  Men, women, soldiers, civilians, black, and white all stood as equals and fought side by side, shoulder to shoulder.

 “Every soul on board doing their utmost to save their lives” stated Capt. Young.

By half past noon on the 25th,  the bailing ceases as it becomes apparent that despite all of their efforts, the ship would sink.  Preparations for launching four life boats and a make shift raft begin.   By 4:00 pm, the steamship Republic plunges towards the ocean floor leaving behind a flotsam of debris and wreckage.

Lifeboat #1 was spotted and rescued by the John W. Lovitt on the 26th.  The following day, , lifeboats #2 and #3 were rescued by the Willie Dill and the Horace Beals respectively.  The survivors aboard lifeboat #4 were forced to endure until the 29th, when they were spotted and rescued by the Harper.
Thirst was perhaps the most trying ordeal as Nichols wrote “Our throats began to swell from thirst, and I took out May's gold chain and put it in my mouth, to keep it moist”.

On November 2nd, eight days after the Republic sank, the makeshift raft was located off Cape Hatteras by the U.S. Navy steamship, USS Tioga.  Clinging to the raft were only two of the approximate 14 – 18 who originally manned the raft directly following the Republic’s sinking.

. Lost were the supplies and merchandise intended to help New Orleans recover from the devastation caused by the coming and going of the war.  She carried slate boards for school children, harmonicas (the poor man’s accordion); patent medicines that promised to cure everything from arthritis to insanity, religious figurines, and other supplies needed for comfortable day to day existence. The cargo hold was also rumored to contain some $400,000.00 in gold and silver coinage, which would have had a positive impact on New Orleans banks that were left holding worthless Confederate currency. In totality, the Republic’s combined cargo of people, everyday supplies and gold and silver specie represented hope for the war torn city of New Orleans.  “Hope” never arrived; instead it lay lost and scattered at the bottom of the Ocean floor

Nearly 140 years later, enter Odyssey Marine Expedition Inc., brainchild of Greg Stemm and John Morris. As founders of the company, Stem and Morris envisioned  a company where “for profit” deep sea recovery and salvage operations could coexist with archaeology and  thrive.

Academia and most archaeologists were less than thrilled with Odyssey in the beginning.  Academia viewed Odyssey Marine Exploration  Inc. as just another treasure hunting operation.  This struggle is nothing new, though on a much smaller scale technologically and for the most part financially, treasure hunters and archaeologists have stood on different sides of a line drawn in the sand, hurling disagreements at each other like sticks and stones.

There are treasure hunters and  new “school of thought” archaeologists who have in many cases grown to respect and work with each other. Over time, Odyssey has also managed to sway many in the world of archaeology even though there are still many diehard archaeologists who refuse to see or acknowledge the fact that Odyssey is truly attempting to conduct scholarly archaeological investigations of wrecks sites they’ve discovered.

, Odyssey handles every aspect of their operation professionally, including the selection of shipwrecks. Even when presented with a map where “X-marks the spot”, Odyssey doesn’t chase after just any shipwreck, every target shipwreck is evaluated by Odyssey prior to making a decision to attempt recovery.  In order to accomplish this, Odyssey employs a team of in- house researchers who gather information about the wreck.  Three areas of concern must be addressed prior to any of Odyssey’s ships leaving the dock.

* Cargo value- To ensure the ship was carrying enough intrinsically valuable cargo to cover the extremely high costs of conducting archaeological and recovery operations.
* Navigational information- To ensure a sinking location or area is known, this step cuts down on the time and money spent searching for the proverbial “needle in the hay stack”
* Path to ownership- It is essential that the research reasonably predict any claims to ownership of the ship or cargo prior to recovery.

Having addressed these three points in respect to the Republic, Odyssey considered her to be a viable target and began the first phase of their search.

Odyssey focused in on the most important question; where might the Republic be?  Where had she finally ended up after being tossed around by the hurricane and dragged by the current of the Gulf Stream?  Reports of the day stated the Republic had gone down approximately 100 miles off the coast of Georgia.  With over 192 miles of coastline, Odyssey needed to narrow the search area down. To accomplish this, Odyssey used complex computer models which were fed with a multitude of data points that included reported wind speeds and direction, currents, the ships bearings, sightings of debris fields discovered by other ships in the area, survivor’s accounts, and the known locations of the life boats when they were found by other ships.

In May of 2002, Odyssey designated an initial search area of approximately 600 nautical miles and began the tedious task of “mowing the lawn”.  Mowing the lawn is a process where a surface vessel drags a sidescan sonar device back and forth across the immense search area.  The side scan sonar device being dragged at the end of a two mile long cable glides 80 feet above the ocean floor mapping it in half mile wide paths.  In Priit J. Vesilind’s book “Lost Gold of the Republic” Ernie Tapanes described towing a light weight sonar through the Gulf Stream as akin to “towing a toothpick in a river”.

For fourteen months, Odyssey searched for the Republic all the while dealing with equipment breakdowns, equipment upgrades, false calls, the coming and going of employees, storms, and of course the currents in the Gulf Stream.  Then, on July 25th, Odyssey located a possible target.  Having dealt with several false calls that turned out to be the likes of modern sailboat, a fighter jet and an 18th century merchant vessel, the crew’s initial and predominant opinion was that it was probably another sailboat.  Two days were spent making several sonar runs past the object from different angles, creating a 3D view of the target.  High resolution sonar scans in hand, they were able to calculate the measurements of the wreck.  All measurements matched to within a foot of the known measurements of the Republic.  With this information, they were convinced that they had found the Republic.

On August 2nd, a small remotely operated vehicle or ROV was sent to the wreck site to photograph and obtain an artifact sample from the wreck site in order to legally claim the rights to work the site.  The ROV battled against the currents of the Gulf Stream narrowly escaping the mission intact.   When the battered ROV returned, it brought back amazing video as well as a brown bottle and a chunk of wood from the wreck site. The two artifacts were then delivered to the federal court in Tampa, FL and on August 12th, Odyssey was named “Salvor in Possession”, the first step in gaining exclusive rights to the Republic and the cargo that went down with her.

Having discovered what they believed to be the Republic, Odyssey made good on their promise to conduct a proper archaeological excavation of the site by hiring archaeologist Neil Cunningham Dobson of Scotland.  Underwater archaeology was no stranger to Dobson who had conducted underwater archaeological excavations of a 17th-century galleon off the coast of England.  For signing on with Odyssey, Dobson was highly criticized by his peers in academia.

Dobson realized those standing on the commercial side of the proverbial line in the sand were the ones who had the funding, the tools, and the drive necessary for him to conduct his work.

In Priit J. Vesilind’s book “Lost Gold of the Republic” Dobson states “And at the end of the day, I don’t care whether a university or a commercial company pays me to do archaeology.  I perform to the same standard regardless...” he continues “for underwater archaeology to succeed in this century; you have got to live with your neighbors technology and business.”

On October 2nd, Odyssey began their pre-disturbance work which consists of mapping and documenting the entire wreck site.  This included dropping five acoustic transponders around the perimeter of the site. The transponders enabled the crew to create and electronic grid map to document the exact location where an artifact was found.  This process is equivalent to the peg and string grids common at excavations sites on dry land.

Odyssey was still conducting pre-disturbance procedures through October 31st, creating a photo mosaic of the entire site.  The photo mosaic would eventually consist of more than 4,600 digital photographs taken during a total of 23 dives. It cost Odyssey $20,000.00 a day, yet Stemm never wavered in his determination to conduct proper archaeological practices at the wreck site.  It would have been easy for Odyssey to dredge the site and then sort out the artifacts on deck, but Stemm was determined that in the end, if and when he was asked about their practices, he would be able to hold his head up and tell academia and the world exactly what was done.

Having completed the pre-disturbance work, Odyssey decided to test its newly repaired  ROV’s vacuum (or ventruri) system, on a promising sand berm near the stern of the vessel.

The operators positioned the ROV in front of the sand pile and had just started testing the venturi system, when through a whirling vortex of sand and grit a co-pilot thought he saw a coin.

“Stop! I think I see a coin!” yelled the co-pilot.

They spent the rest of that night carefully plucking coins from the berm and placing them in a white chamber pot found at the wreck site.  Being that this was more of a test run than a recovery run; the ROV was not outfitted with a suitable container.  Odyssey improvised and used what was available and when the ROV returned to the surface, the chamber pot contained 86 coins, most of which were $20 double eagle gold coins.

This first batch of coins was examined by a numismatic company. It was determined  some of the coins were valued between $30,000.00 and $50,000.00 each.  With a reported 400,000 coins aboard the Republic and a modest estimation of an average coin value of $10,000.00, Odyssey figured they were looking at a possible $200,000,000.00 pay off in coins alone.

Odyssey ended up recovering 51,404 of the reported 400,000 coins that were supposed to have been aboard the Republic.  In total there were 4,135 gold coins and 47,263 silver halves as well two silver quarters and four British florins recovered.  These coins were divided into two categories “numismatic” and “shipwreck effect”.

The numismatic categories consisted of coins that showed no signs of having been on the ocean floor and were in mint like condition.  Odyssey received offers as high as $550,000.00 for some of these individual coins.

The shipwreck effect coins however, were ungraded and showed signs of having been recovered from the ocean floor.  These coins were estimated to fetch between $1,000.00 and $2,000.00 and though less valuable would command a premium from the sort of person who had never bought a coin before and most likely would never purchase one again.

Odyssey stood to cash in on other valuable collectibles that were gathered from the wreck site.  Most notably some 8,429 Civil War era glass and stoneware bottles, some examples of which have been known to fetch several thousand dollars on the collectors market.

Like stories of the Native Americans who used every part of an animal harvested, Odyssey came up with an idea of recovering pieces of broken bottle glass from the shipwreck and used these pieces to create shipwreck glass jewelry, an ingenious move which created more cash flow for Odyssey as well as making it possible for anyone to own their very own piece of Civil War era maritime history.

In the end, Odyssey Marine Exploration’s gamble paid off.  They searched for, found, and were able to recover artifacts and treasure that more than covered their expenses.  On top of that, Odyssey followed through with their promises of conducting a thorough archaeological investigation of the site, the fruits of which have contributed greatly in the worlds understanding of the sinking of the Republic, as well as everyday life shortly after the end of the Civil War.

Authors Note:
Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. has made all of their data from the Republic available on their website at


  1. Good story! Treasure hunting is very amazing job. I wish I could participate in real treasure hunting.

    1. Charles, I'm glad you liked it. I'll be posting more of my stories up here in the near future, to go along with my videos and such.

      Kind regards,

      Russ Balbirona