for National Geographic News
Underwater explorers may have hit the mother lode with the discovery of the Civil-War era S.S. Republic. The paddlewheel steamship went to the bottom of the Atlantic in 1865 with a cargo of gold coins that may be worth as much as U.S. 180 million dollars.
But that may not be all that's valuable about the wreck. The ship could represent a time capsule of an important part of United States history.
The ill-fated ship was en route from New York to New Orleans when it sunk on October 25, 1865, during a hurricane near Savannah, Georgia. Its cargo included some 20,000 $20 gold pieces, which were to help fund post-war Reconstruction. While the Republic's passengers were able to abandon ship, its precious cargo went to the bottom.
Donald H. Kagin, author of Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States, has estimated that the treasure could be worth U.S. 120 million to 180 million dollars.
"I expect that the coins would fetch an average of between U.S. $6,000 and $9,000 each based on the sale of the coins from the shipwrecks of the Central America and Brother Jonathan, and the enhanced value from the amazing story of this particular ship," Kagin suggested in a statement released by the Republic's discoverers, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., of Tampa, Florida.
"That value would depend on the ultimate quality of the specimens, but if their condition proves to be comparable to other shipwreck coins from the period, it would make this the most valuable documented cargo ever recovered from a shipwreck."
That honor currently belongs to the S.S. Central America, which sunk in a hurricane off North Carolina in 1857. The ship held some U.S. 100 million dollars in gold when it was excavated in 1987.
Twelve-Year Search Yields Success at Last
The wreck was discovered in 1,700 feet (500 meters) of water, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Savannah.
Preliminary explorations of the site did not turn up a piece of definitive identification such as a nameplate. However, the ship's length, boilers, hull type, side-wheels, and copper sheathing present a conglomeration of circumstantial evidence that have convinced Odyssey Marine Exploration that the ship is indeed the Republic.
The discovery appears to be the culmination of a 12-year search effort. Odyssey crews had combed about 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) of ocean in search of the Republic, employing side-scan sonar and magnetometer technology. A total of 24 targets were inspected with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) during 2002 and 2003.
"After all the years of searching for this particular shipwreck, finally finding it with just an incredible team of folks, it's just an indescribable feeling," said Greg Stemm, co-founder, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. Documentation and excavation of the site will begin next month, and is expected to cost several million dollars.
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