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Ship of Gold

In October 1865, the crew of the SS Republic loaded the 210-foot steamship with food, medicine, cloth, and other supplies. Also onboard were businessmen, soldiers, families with children, and a reported $400,000 in gold coins. That much money would be a small fortune today. In 1865 it was an unbelievable amount of money—a fabulous fortune.

The SS Republic Sets Out

The bloody U.S. Civil War had ended five months before, and the South lay in ruins. Its economy was shattered. Its cities were piles of rubble. The Republic's job that October was to help rebuild New Orleans. The war had taken its toll on the city. As the crew loaded the ship in New York harbor, the citizens of New Orleans eagerly awaited the Republic's arrival.

The voyage was pleasant until the wind kicked up just off the coast of North Carolina. The stiff breeze turned into what the ship's captain called a “perfect hurricane.”

Waves crashed over the Republic's deck, and anything that wasn't tied down was washed overboard. “The wind was howling through the rigging like demons of the sea,” wrote William Nichols, a former Union soldier. “None expected anything but death.”

Disaster

As the ship pitched and rolled, passengers and crew frantically emptied bucket after bucket of seawater from the ship's flooded hold. But their efforts proved useless. The ship could not survive the storm. With no hope left, 59 passengers and the crew escaped in crowded lifeboats. One person drowned as the Republic sank to the bottom of the ocean.

Found!

Now, almost 140 years later, scientists are beginning to unlock the mysteries of the Republic as researchers bring its cargo back to shore.

Salvage experts from Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., of Tampa, Florida, found the Republic in 2003. Salvagers are people who rescue a ship or its cargo after a shipwreck. The ship lay in 1,700 feet of water off the coast of Georgia. In November 2004, scientists brought up dozens of coins, 600 glass bottles, and a telescope. These old objects are called artifacts.

Finding the artifacts is a time-consuming job. The research ship, Odyssey, is equipped with high-tech devices to scan the seafloor for treasure. Researchers use underwater robot-like mini-submarines (subs), to retrieve the coins and relics. Researchers onboard Odyssey use remote control to operate the subs.

Each sub is equipped with a flexible arm and tiny suction cups that vacuum the seafloor, picking up objects one item at a time.

Going for the Gold

Researchers found fruit and nuts still in their containers. They also found such personal items as combs, mirrors, and jewelry boxes. But the gold is the treasure that keeps the researchers digging. After more than a year of searching, researchers have found 51,000 coins, valued today at more than $75 million.

The coins were on the Republic because money was scarce in the South after the war. In post–Civil War New Orleans, $20 could buy twice as much as it would buy in New York. Northern bankers had shipped thousands of dollars to take advantage of the South’s war-torn economy.

More Coins Remain

Scientists say millions of dollars in coins still lie buried in the mud. Salvagers are having a difficult time finding the rest of the money. Researcher Gregg Stemm says the remaining coins are in a large debris field created when the ship broke apart. He plans to keep looking in the hopes of finding the remaining coins.

“You know, there are people who've looked their whole lives for something like this, and they never get to see anything like it,” Stemm told a newspaper, the Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch. “And here we are.”