When you say 'Shipwreck...' it immediately brings to mind the eerie shipwreck footage of R.M.S Titanic, one of the most well known; no doubt brought to popular notice by the 1997 epic romance-disaster saga 'Titanic' ....But it is just one of a million shipwrecks that is said to be in the ocean beds of different oceans.
Shipwrecks cause enormous loss to human life. Yet they evoke a strange sense of excitement in people when they hear the words 'shipwreck treasure hunting'. For some it's the history, the idea of unravelling the mysteries of the past. But for most it's the real link to treasure...gold!
Most ships during the California Gold rush carried the excavated and freshly minted Gold to different parts of the country. When such ships got lost at sea it was mostly due to storms or rocks. These ships sank to the bottom of the Pacific or the Atlantic and the gold that they carried also sank; just waiting for a treasure hunter to come and seek them!
Double Eagles were literally born out of the California Gold Rush period. To transfer Gold from one location to another, $20 Gold coins were easier to handle than $10 coins. Most often these $20 coins travelled through ships!
SS Central America
SS Central America, known as the 'Ship of Gold', left the port of Colon (Panama) for New York City on September 3rd 1857. The ship had 477 passengers, 101 crew and was laden with 9.1t of Gold.
On September 9th the ship was hit with Category 2 hurricane and by September 11th it's sails were torn, the boilers stopped working and it was taking in water. The ship sank with it's Captain Commander William Lewis Herndon (Yes, Herndon in Virginia is named after him!) and most of the crew members while 153 women and children were rescued. The SS Central America went down with gold worth $292,000,000 in today's equivalent money.
Later in 1980, Tommy Thompson a scientist worked to find the wreck and the gold within. The underwater remote controlled device called 'Nemo' helped to recover the treasure; mostly ingots and coins. Of this 5400 coins were mint fresh 1857-S Double Eagles!
SS Yankee Blade
SS Yankee Blade was made for the express purpose of ferrying passengers,cargo and gold from California to Panama and back. She was one of the most luxurious and the fastest ships to sail the canal. On September 30th 1854, Yankee Blade made what would be her final voyage from San Francisco to Panama. She was carrying around 1200 passengers, $152,000 worth gold coins and other valuables of the passengers.
Captain Henry Randall was in command of the ship and was engaged in an unofficial race (and a $5000 bet!) with the Captain of Sonora who was also sailing to the same port. The SS Yankee Blade went the dangerous route hugging the coast while the Sonora took the more safer but longer route well offshore. Soon the Yankee Blade encountered thick fog and hit a rock a mile from the shore. This caused a twelve foot gash in its hull and caused the ship to stand almost 60 ft above the water! The ship's lifeboats were used to ferry most passengers to the shore and in an unprecedented move, the Captain of the ship abandoned it to reach shore along with other passengers. Almost all survivors were rescued later by another ship Goliah that came that way. The Yankee Blade then sank to it's rocky grave along with the gold and other valuables!
In 1977 some recoveries were made and around 250 1854-S Double Eagles were found in the wreckage with microscopic granularities.
Unlike the other two ships, SS Republic had a longer life in the seas and she took different names over the years. Initially named Tennessee she acted as a merchant ship. She was soon used for trans-Atlantic trips to England and France carrying passengers. When Civil War broke out she got captured by Confederate forces and later by Union forces. She was renamed USS Mobile but got damaged in a hurricane which ended her navy career. After getting auctioned off in 1865, she was renamed yet again, now as SS Republic and started carrying passengers and cargo in the New York-New Orleans route.
On October 18th 1865, SS Republic left New York for New Orleans. She was carrying passengers and $400,000 in $10 (Eagles) and $20 (Double Eagles). After five days, a hurricane off Georgia hit SS Republic and soon her hull was taking in water so fast that the crew couldn't do a thing. Her boilers stopped working and she sank soon afterwards. Most passengers and crew escaped in lifeboats. But the coins were lost!
In 2003, the wreckage was discovered by the Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. Around 51,000 coins were recovered from the sea bed under 1,700 ft of water. Around 1400 of eagles and several thousand Double Eagles of all date and mintmark issues from 1850 to 1865 (except for 1856-O) were also found. Almost all of them were found in pristine condition with no impact due to the immersion in water for 140 years! The most valuable Double Eagle coin was a 1854-O that was valued for more than a million dollars!