Monday, October 17, 2005


'Lost Gold' a real find for readers


North County Times
By Norman N. Brown
October 15, 2005

Tales of treasure-laden ships that sink and lie on ocean floors for centuries are nothing new. Nor are the stories about the efforts made to find those ships and their valuable cargoes. Even readers not familiar with sea lore often find such tales appealing."Lost Gold of the Republic: The Remarkable Quest for the Greatest Shipwreck Treasure of the Civil War Era" (Shipwreck Heritage Press, $24.50) is such a story.

Author Priit J. Vesilind, a longtime writer for National Geographic magazine, regales readers with a splendid book about the fate of the steam-powered paddle-wheeler Republic, which began life as the Tennessee when it was launched in August 1853.

The story of the ship and its tragic fate would have been entertaining enough, but Vesilind also describes the world in which it sailed, and the social and political climate of the United States before and after the Civil War.

What's more, he delves into modern-day marine archaeology, wreck-hunting and treasure recovery from three points of view.The Tennessee was 210 feet long and displaced 1,500 tons.

It could carry 5,000 barrels of cargo and up to 100 passengers. Initially owned by the West Indies & Venezuela Steamship Co., the ship changed owners a few times before becoming a transporter of mercenary troops for William Walker, the quixotic American adventurer who tried to establish himself as the ruler of nations in Central America.

In 1861, the ship was seized in New Orleans by the Confederate Navy for use as a blockade runner.

It never left port and was then seized by the Union Navy when Adm. David Farragut occupied the city.The Tennessee was later sold and its new owners renamed it the Republic. In May 1865, it made its first round trip between New York and New Orleans.

On its third such voyage, the Republic left New York on Oct. 19, 1865, and sank six days later after being battered by a storm about 100 miles east of Savannah, Ga. Although the passenger list and cargo manifest for this voyage have never been found, it is known that the Republic was transporting $400,000 worth of gold and silver coins.

Most of the Republic's passengers and crew escaped in four lifeboats, which were picked up, one by one and on different days, by other ships.

Another 16 sailors escaped on a hastily built raft, which was found adrift eight days later with only two survivors.

Fast-forward to 1986: Greg Stemm and John Morris, co-owners of a Florida real estate corporation, bought an 85-foot research ship from the University of North Carolina. Stemm and Morris briefly chartered it as a party boat before entering the underwater exploration business using ROVs, submersible remotely operated vehicles.

They leased their equipment to the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, and to private clients, for locating and inspecting items lost at sea. A major portion of "Lost Gold of the Republic" describes the struggles, disappointments and successes of Stemm and Morris and their business venture.

Vesilind clearly details the difficulties involved in searching for the site of the Republic as well as the ingenuity that led to the mission's success. More than 51,000 gold and silver coins have been recovered from the Republic ---- only one-fourth of the reported amount shipped on that last voyage ---- along with a trove of bottles, shoes, spurs, religious artifacts and porcelain figurines.

The purser's safe has not yet been located, but the partners are waiting until technological advancement permits further prying into the wreck without harming it.


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