The Colgate Scene
January 2006

Chronicle of the treasure hunters

Thousands of gold coins were found at the shipwreck site. [Images courtesy of Odyssey Marine Exploration]

Editor's note: Priit Vesilind '64 recently published Lost Gold of the Republic, the nonfiction tale of the search for the greatest shipwreck treasure of the Civil War era. In the tradition of Ship of Gold and Shadow Divers, the book tells the story of the search by Greg Stemm and John Morris, two modern pioneers of shipwreck exploration, as they attempt to locate an elusive ship that was sunk in 1865 in a hurricane somewhere south of Cape Hatteras.

Vesilind is a veteran author of outdoor adventure tales. His career includes 30 years with National Geographic magazine, where he rose to the post of adventure and expeditions editor and senior writer. A native of Estonia, he has been awarded that country's Order of the White Cross medal.

In a striking coincidence, Vesilind premiered Lost Gold at the grand opening of a new museum featuring the Republic — in the French Quarter of New Orleans, La., the same weekend that Hurricane Katrina hit. The museum was open just one hour before everyone had to evacuate.

An excerpt from Lost Gold follows (from pp. 164-166).

The SS Republic was a side-wheel steamship that sunk in 1865 in a deadly storm somewhere south of Cape Hatteras.

As Zeus roamed the cold darkness around the sunken ship's skeleton on those early October days of 2003, its video unambiguously revealed the remains of an old steamer, sitting upright but at a tilt, half-buried in an overlay of sand and coral hardpan. The bow was shattered but the stern seemed intact. Whatever vessel it was, the wreck formed a hillock on the plain of the ocean floor, a mound of debris in the middle. Under the weight of the cargo, the hull had collapsed like a cooked onion, leaving cave-like spaces underneath the shattered decking.

Two men were reported to have died flailing in the open waters as the Republic sank. Those two, described only as an elderly sea captain and a German sailor, never reached any lifeboat or the raft. Their bodies undoubtedly drifted off to far lonelier parts of the sea floor and were not likely to be found near this wreck. This was not a gravesite.

As the ROV floated silently over the site, the team saw an amazing variety of artifacts. Across the wreck lay piles of patent-medicine bottles, cases of inkwells, bolts of silk cloth for dresses, elegant decanters, glass buttons, porcelain dishes, and metal bedpans. Stacked window panes glinted back at the camera. Bottles filled with fruit appeared ready for pies. Leather shoes clung together spoon-fashion in a non-existent crate — soles lost at sea. Cerramic and milk-glass religious items lay strewn about — praying angels on their knees, a sculpted Madonna and child. Candleholders lay like cordwood, their packaging dissolved.

If this were the SS Republic, everything that the city of New Orleans had needed in the months after the Civil War rested here in a compact pile beneath 1,700 feet of water — a time capsule of aid, relief, and reconstruction. Many unopened boxes, crates, and pieces of luggage lay scattered among the spars and remnants of pine decking. Each bag surely held an intimate subplot: someone had once leaned over it, packing it with socks and shirts and underwear, perhaps adding a present for Aunt May in Baton Rouge.

In the stern lay the immense rudder, the size of a station wagon. Only its copper sheathing, with its brass gudgeons and pintles, held the decayed wood together. The boiler was encrusted with green and yellow algae and coral, and fish filled the engine room, their eyes reflecting the lights of the ROV like so many stars.

As the ghostly high-tech Zeus floated silently by, red crabs pirouetted among the scrap metal. In the bow lay the intact windlass, with its chain still holding onto the anchor, flukes erect, waiting for something to cling to. Magenta fish darted among the eerie spokes of the paddlewheel skeletons, and the 30-foot-tall walking beam, shaggy with marine growth, towered above the site like a Druid deity.

"Standing in defiance," breathed Neil Dobson, eyes fixed on the panorama unfolding on the huge screen. "It seems like a memorial to the place — the old lady, battered over the years, but still standing, saying, `I'm not done yet.'"

Neil and Herb Bump had predicted there would be little original archaeology involved with a wreck from 1865, that all variations of the artifacts were probably already well known and catalogued. But there was power in the tumbled composition of the shipwreck; it was a collage of the familiar that had become a work of art, an evocative still-life, except that the constant wash of the current bathed and scoured everything in a stream of plankton, sand, and debris. Once a locus of disaster for humans, cast from their cabins to drift for days at the mercy of wind and wave, the shipwreck had now become a shelter from the endless flow of the Gulf Stream for fish and shrimp.

"You could spend years there excavating the wreck," said Neil, wistfully.

On the second day out, October 9, the pilot of the ROV spied something metallic between a ruin of spars. He panned the camera to zoom in on the object: a ship's bell. The recovery team was delighted, yet apprehensive. Recovery of this crucial object could be a moment to confirm years of persistence — or send them all back to the monotony of scanning an endless sea floor.

The next day, Zeus returned to the spot. Carefully, it clamped its viselike claws around the bottom of the cracked, 14-inch-tall hunk of brass and slid it into a large plastic container on the front of the ROV. Then, so slowly, it lifted the bell to the surface.

Corrosion blurred much of the engraved name, but four letters were clearly etched within a stylized ribbon: SSEE.

Was it indeed the right ship? After a brief moment of concern, the answer became obvious. The original bell of the Tennessee had never been changed when the ship was renamed.

Now it was beyond doubt: Odyssey had its prize, after years of seeking.

Shipwreck Heritage Press, 2005
Reprinted by permission of publisher
Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: Relationship-building... Next: The humanistic economist >>