William Nichols found a shattered economy when his train arrived in New Orleans in November. Reconstruction was in full, painful stride in the city, occupied by Federal troops in 1862. The cargo of the Republic, had it arrived on time, would have had immediate impact. Gold and silver coins had nearly vanished from circulation, and people yearned to feel the jingle in their pockets.
Republic was only one of several ships due with hard money for New Orleans that week. As customers read in the New Orleans Picayune of October 25, "the Evening Star brought $376,412, embracing $100,000 to Mssrs. Brown, Bro. and company, $84,000 for the Citizens' Bank, $50,000 to the Canal Bank, a like amount to another party, $47,456 to Mssrs. Wm. Edwards and company, and $10,000 to Mr. J. Barker."
Back in the booming 1840s and '50s, when the city served as the commercial hub of the Mississippi watershed, the city's 13 banks held more than 12 million dollars in gold and silver. The New Orleans mint was one of seven that provided United States currency for nationwide distribution. But, to thwart the impending Union military occupation of 1862, the banks had whisked what hard currency they had left to hidden caches in river valleys, where they could be tapped by a retreating Confederate Army.
Throughout the war much of commerce ran on odd private currencies: scrips, banknotes, or trade tokens issued by department stores, even parish governments. Drinking-house shinplasters and five-cent streetcar tickets served as small change. The joke on the streets, wrote a citizen, George W. Cable, was that "you could pass the label of an olive oil bottle as money, because it was greasy, smelt bad, and bore an autograph."
Weeks passed before Nichols received a letter from his family rector in Vermont, George S. Howard, telling him that Thyrza had died from typhoid fever. She had hung on, he wrote, "in a state of painful suspense" until a telegram confirming her husband's survival from the wreck had arrived. "The excitement seemed to have kept her up, for when she heard from you, a reaction seemed to take place, and she was seriously ill. . . . She sank gradually under her disease until she peacefully breathed out her life without a struggle or groan."
In Texas Nichols purchased two cotton plantations and invested in a tannery, but later returned home to wrap up his old life. He married Thyrza's sister, Louise, then headed west with his surviving daughter, Lucy. In Illinois he founded a town he named Maywood after his dead, beloved daughter, May. He became a town patriarch, a shrewd businessman, and an inventor of farm implements such as the "Maywood scraper and ditcher" and the screw harrow, a revolutionary soil-cultivating machine.
In September, after three intense weeks of welding, refitting, and the installation of computer, survey, video, and archaeological mapping systems, the Odyssey Explorer embarked from Baltimore with a mission team of 23, including marine archaeologist Neil Cunningham Dobson, a Scot. Dobson had been under fire from his colleagues in academia. Most archaeologists, as a matter of principle, object to any excavation that results in the sale of artifacts. "The general feeling is that the archaeology will always be compromised if it is commercially driven," he said. "I feel that this is not fair. At the end of the day I don't care whether a university or a commercial company pays me to do archaeology. I do the same standard regardless. I am a professional." Only a commercial operation, he said, could afford a deep-sea recovery of the Republic.
As it roamed across the sunken steamship's skeleton, the ROV Zeus sent back video that played on the monitor screens of the Odyssey Explorer, positioned in the sea above. Under the weight of the cargo, the ship's hull had collapsed like a cooked onion, and from amidships rose the paddle wheels and a 30-foot-tall walking beam, the metal frame that turns the crankshaft of a vertical steam engine. "There was a ghostliness about it," sonar technician J. J. Jackson said later. "You could almost feel when the boiler went cold."
Between a ruin of spars, the crew spied something brassy. The video camera zoomed in—the ship's bell! Zeus carefully grasped the bottom of the cracked, heavy, 14-inch-tall hunk of brass and lifted it to the surface. Corrosion blurred much of the engraved name, but the last four letters were clear—SSEE. The Republic, built in 1853, had originally been christened the S.S. Tennessee. The bell had never been changed. Now it was beyond doubt; Odyssey had located its prize.
The coins were another matter. The Republic's jumbled remains sprawled over an area nearly the size of a football field and were covered by sand and hardpan coral. Unless the team was lucky, finding the money could take months of salvage work.
On November 5, ROV supervisor Jim Starr was about to go off shift, but they had time for a few more maneuvers. The big ROV had two main tools: a six-inch-diameter Venturi tube, like a giant vacuum cleaner that could either blow sand off or suck it in to clear a site, and a delicate suction cup called a limpet, which could pick up artifacts without scratching them. On the intercom, Starr queried Neil Dobson, who was watching on another monitor: "What do you want to do next?"
"I dunno. What do you want to do?"
"Let's test the Venturi system," said Starr. "We just made some repairs to it."
ROV pilot Gary Peterson deftly maneuvered Zeus to a sandy spot near the Republic's stern. It wasn't an entirely random choice for a probe; the coins found in the wreck of the gold-rush-era steamer Central America in 1991 had been stored in a safe room near the stern. Technician Alan Smith turned on the Venturi tube and began sucking away the sand.
"Stop!" shouted Starr, peering into the monitor screen. "Turn the system off. I see a coin!" The camera zoomed in on the metallic ridge sticking out of the sand. "Nobody said anything," Starr remembered. "We were all stunned. And I finally said to Neil over the intercom, 'You interested in this?'"
Soon five more coins emerged from beneath the billowing sand. The team's hunch, indeed the whole exploration plan, had proved correct. They didn't even have a container ready to bring up the coins, however, so Zeus scooted out and looked around the wreck site for something appropriate to use. Thus it was that the first 80 gold coins recovered from S.S. Republic were temporarily stored in a white enamel chamber pot.
Within days the Venturi unit revealed a cascade of gold coins, both ten-dollar pieces and twenty-dollar double eagles, spilling from the curved rim of a buried wooden keg. Many were pressed together in stacks like poker chips. On Thursday, November 13, the Odyssey Explorer pulled into its home port of Jacksonville with more than 700 gold and silver coins. Waiting was an expert coin assessor, Rob Westfall of National Gold Exchange, Inc., in Tampa.
"These are basically mint-state coins, never circulated," Westfall marveled. "And there's such a diversity of types. To my knowledge there's never been a hoard discovered of Civil War–era coins. This is just amazing."
Odyssey knew there would be other claimants. The U.S. government, for one, had launched an investigation to see if any of the money belonged to a Federal payroll, but that theory proved baseless. And in January 2004 the company paid 1.6 million dollars in compensation to the Atlantic Insurance Company, which had insured some of the Republic's cargo. Odyssey, it appeared, could keep the rest of the money.
Numismatists greeted the collection with awe. A number of individual coins were described as the finest ever found in their categories, and their composite value was estimated at perhaps 75 million dollars.
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, the great-great-granddaughter of William Nichols, teaches art history at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Joining an Odyssey voyage in February, she brought with her an heirloom gold chain and locket holding a miniature tintype of the first Thyrza Nichols. The photoengraving had held its sharpness over 135 years, and the eyes glinted sternly from a stiff, black New England habit.
She had just recently found letters from her family's past, in a musty old family trunk. "We didn't even know about the shipwreck," she said. "That was never talked about. I think it was only a detail of his life."
Indeed, there was more to the man than survival. William Nichols led the 14th Vermont volunteers against Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, he faced down the unquenchable sorrow of losing a wife and child, and he sired a family whose bonds proved wiry tough. The names Thyrza and Lucy alternated through the generations. His daughter Lucy named her daughter Thyrza. "That was my grandmother," said Goodeve. "My mother was Lucy, and here I am, Thyrza."
William Nichols's story was only one among the fortunes of the S.S. Republic's 43 surviving passengers. Even now, preserved in the silent flow of the Gulf Stream, the steamship informs us of a time of bold opportunity and national reconciliation, when men could beat their bayonets into plowshares and their swords into screw harrows.