[an error occurred while processing this directive]


Online Extra
September 2004

<< Back to Feature Page

Treasure Ship

By Priit J. Vesilind
It was a time to move on, to douse the fires and lick the wounds. The Civil War had ended in May, and the holy quiet that followed had evolved into a vibrant summer hum of opportunity. The defeated South lay poor and bitter, but the rest of the nation had turned, gratefully, back to making money.
In October William T. Nichols, a former colonel of a Vermont regiment, and his younger brother, Henry, put down 60 dollars each and stepped off a Manhattan pier onto the S.S. Republic, a steamship bound for New Orleans. They found stateroom number 13, stowed their baggage, and awaited the 3:30 cast off. The weather was heavy outside the harbor, so the steamship lay over until the next morning at Staten Island and embarked again at 9 a.m. on October 19.
Newly refitted from a warship back into a civilian steamer, her twin side paddle wheels turned by coal-fired boilers, the Republic carried 59 passengers, 500 barrels of freight, and a reported 400,000 dollars in coins. Hard money was scarce in the former Confederate states, and New Orleans was broke, so bankers and businessmen were shipping keg-loads of coins to take advantage of their inflated purchasing power. In New Orleans the same 20-dollar gold coin would buy twice as much as it would in New York.
Aboard the Republic were families with children, Army officers headed for new assignments, and businessmen like Nichols. Dressed in top hats and silk, the passengers breathed the warm salt air, played cards, and drank wine, happy to have survived the war.
Fate had not been kind to William Nichols, a 35-year-old veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg. He had just lost his daughter, May, to typhoid fever. He had also lost a small fortune in stock and wool investments. Now he was looking to the South to regain his footing, planning to continue from New Orleans to Texas, where he hoped to purchase real estate on the cheap. He took heart from the voyage. "The weather is beautiful, and the ship bounds on her way like a thing of life," he wrote to his wife, Thyrza, back in Rutland.
The Republic passed Cape Hatteras on Sunday, October 22, and by the next evening the wind had stiffened into a northeast gale. The ship was off the Georgia coast when the gale turned into what the captain, Edward Young, described as the "perfect hurricane." Steaming south at a furious rate, Young could not outrun it.
The end began with a table-clearing roll on Monday afternoon that sent dinner—pies, meats, vegetables, and condiments—tumbling to the floor. The ship labored as towering waves rushed across her decks. The soaked passengers huddled in their berths, sleepless, and in the nightmare clarity of Tuesday morning they saw the great paddle wheels stop, leaving the piston locked dead center and the ship adrift, at the mercy of the wind. Waves washed away the pilothouse and paddle-wheel boxes. Passengers and crew alike tossed cargo overboard to lighten the ship. Out went bolts of silk, ingots of tin, liquors, tobacco, varnish, and other heavy goods.
"I supposed I had seen something like confusion in battle," Nichols later wrote, "but the scene at this time was sublime. The ship had 300 tons of coal, and as she lurched from side to side, the roar of the coal and water sounded like Niagara, and the water on the outside dashing against the ship was another distinct sound and horrid enough of itself. The wind was howling through the rigging like the demons of the sea, and to make it a perfect hell, the men, excited and yelling to each other, begrimed with black smut and engine grease. It was desperation intensified."
Just before 2 p.m. on October 25, Captain Young gave orders to abandon ship. Crew and passengers climbed into four lifeboats and a raft hastily assembled from the ship's spars. The Nichols brothers clambered into lifeboat number 2, the last one lowered. As the Republic gave a final shudder and surrendered herself to the deep, the seas were rolling 40 feet high, tossing the lifeboats and dooming efforts to keep them together. The raft, without oars or sail, soon floated out of sight, helpless flotsam in the fury of the hurricane.
The 15 survivors in lifeboat 2 bailed with shoes and caps to stay afloat and pulled desperately on the oars, enduring a black, cruel night. The next day they rigged up a tablecloth as a small sail. "Thirst, more terrible than anything else I ever suffered, was added to our other calamities," Nichols wrote. "We had not one drop of water, and with all the labor we had performed it seemed impossible to live."
Friday, October 27, dawned with little hope. The survivors' throats began to swell from thirst, and Nichols put his deceased daughter May's gold chain and locket in his mouth to keep his tongue moist. When a sail came into sight, they thrashed toward it with fury, but it faded away. On the edge of despair, they took off their clothes and jumped into the sea, hoping to absorb some moisture.
And then came another sail. Though fatigued to the point of numbness, they pulled for more than an hour before they got the attention of Captain Joseph Blankenship of the Horace Beals. They were not able to stand up when pulled onto the deck of the schooner, but by Monday they were safe in Charleston port. The other three lifeboats also passed through harrowing days and were delivered by passing ships and search vessels.
"We suffered everything but death," Nichols wrote to Thyrza, "but thanks to God, arrived here this morning safe. Lost all our clothes and baggage in fact everything except the clothes we happened to have on—we have our money—I cannot write you but a note as we are about to take the train for New Orleans."
Those on the raft weren't as lucky. Adrift for eight days, all but two of 14 souls were washed off one by one, or simply leaped into the Atlantic in despair. The two survivors—the ship's quartermaster Oliver Martin and waiter James Noolan—were still clinging to the spars on November 2 when the Navy steamer Tioga spotted them bobbing south of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. They had drifted some 250 miles north, riding the mighty Gulf Stream.
Ernie Tapanes puffed a hefty cigar and gripped the railing of the teetering 113-foot-long research vessel Odyssey. It was July off the coast of Georgia, the sea roiling with a mix of thunderstorms, sweltering heat, and six-foot swells. Tapanes, 35, was both investor and oceanic engineer at Odyssey Marine Exploration, based in Tampa, and the operations chief of the ship. In the company's latest effort to find the remains of the Republic, he and a crew of ten had been at sea for two weeks. Odyssey had heard of at least two other groups planning expeditions to search for the Republic. To deflect interest, the team was using the code name Bavaria for the steamship.
Finding the Republic would vindicate a tenacious 12-year research effort for Odyssey co-founders Greg Stemm and John Morris, Tampa entrepreneurs who were convinced that deepwater shipwreck recovery, despite its many difficulties, could be a viable business venture. The coins that went down in the Republic would now be worth much, much more than their face value.
Odyssey researchers had fed an amalgam of wind speeds, currents, bearings from ships' logs, newspaper reports, survivors' accounts, and lifeboat coordinates into computer models. Their crews had combed 1,500 square miles of ocean with side-scan sonar and a magnetometer and examined 24 promising targets. In the past two years alone they'd found a fighter jet, a custom sailboat, and a 19th-century merchant vessel filled with English pottery and Chinese porcelain. But the Republic had evaded them.
Ernie Tapanes was a true believer in the mission, but it was wearing him down. He and the team had covered all but the last section—the northernmost square of the search area. "With all the endless days, sticking to your guns, rolling out of bed every morning," he said, "you start questioning—do we have our information wrong? Is the ship findable?"
On July 7, with supplies dwindling and attention wandering, a blocky shape formed on the screen. "It's just a sailboat," said J. J. Jackson, one of the sonar crew. But sailboats are narrower, thought Tapanes, as he finished the survey block and took the ship back to Charleston for fuel and supplies, the sonar image rattling around his mind.
Odyssey badly needed a score—a quick infusion of success. Year after empty year, Stemm and his partner John Morris had been forced to dilute their ownership in the publicly traded company, selling shares until they were only minority holders.
"I know the shipwreck's out there," said Stemm, an intense 47-year-old with a quick, ingratiating smile. "Somewhere on this chart. I know it's there. We just have to stick it out." The company wouldn't go broke as long as loyal investors hung on, but the boys from Tampa were stretching their credibility. "This is painful," said Stemm. "It's just painful."
Using a higher resolution setting on the sonar, Ernie Tapanes and the Odyssey crew returned to sea for a better look at the sailboat-like object. They spent two arduous days, zeroing in on its shape, creating a three-dimensional sonar form. "I've never had an image like this," said a repentant J. J. Jackson. "It's almost like a photograph. It measures perfectly to what we know of the Republic."
The target wreck lay upright in 1,700 feet of water, about a hundred miles southeast of Savannah, Georgia. In the third week of July, Tapanes e-mailed the image to Stemm and John Morris in Tampa, labeling it "Sailboat #1."
Stemm and Morris knew from the sonar that they had a double-wheeled steamship. Now they had to prove it was the Republic. On August 2 the team returned with a small, tethered, remotely operated vehicle (ROV) fitted with manipulator claws and a video camera.
"It could barely hold its position in the Gulf Stream," said Tapanes. "We practically killed the thing." But the camera found a copper-sheathed rudder and the eerie skeletons of upright paddle wheels. The stuff of daily life was strewed across the seafloor—piles of bottles, stacks of shoes, bolts of silk for fancy dresses, elegant decanters, dominoes, porcelain dishes, bottled berries to make pies. Later they also found cases of slates, inkwells, and molded glass religious items—candelabras, votive candles—lying stacked like cordwood.
From the heap the claws recovered a brown bottle and a piece of wood. To comply with salvage law, Morris delivered the bottle and wood to a federal court in Tampa to "arrest" the site—to keep anyone else from tampering with it. At a hundred miles offshore, the wreck lay beyond the limits of authority that both the state of Georgia and the federal government had over cultural artifacts, but legal sanction was needed to proceed with recovery. The court granted Odyssey exclusive admiralty rights on August 6.
Now convinced that the wreck was the Republic and flush with rejuvenated investors, Odyssey purchased a newer, larger research vessel, a 250-foot-long former fishing trawler that the company named Odyssey Explorer. She would carry a massive new ROV named Zeus, a 200-horsepower, seven-ton, tank-size robot equipped with powerful manipulator arms that could lift heavy objects as well as small objects gently. The site demanded industrial-strength gear just to get to the target and hold steady. "The Gulf Stream keeps the average Joe away," said Ernie Tapanes. "It protects the wreck."
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.


E-mail this page to a friend.

© 1996-2006 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe