Treasures from the sea

By Mitchell Smyth - Toronto Sun

The little heritage museum in this Alabama gulf coast community of 675 souls houses all the things you'd expect. There are vintage farm implements, old-time dresses, Victorian kitchen utensils, tools, a blacksmith's forge, a Victrola phonograph, etc.

But there is also something else, something you would never expect in a small-town museum: Artifacts from a multi-million dollar treasure trove recovered from a shipwreck out in the Atlantic.

A mural, captions on the exhibits and a video tell the story of the ill-fated SS Republic, a sidewheel paddle-steamer, as she sailed from New York to New Orleans in October 1865.

The U.S. Civil War had ended earlier that year and the South was suffering from shortages of everything, including coinage (paper money was widely distrusted).

The Republic was carrying a reported $400,000 in gold and silver coins (worth something like $100 million today) for New Orleans banks and businesses.

On the third day at sea the ship ran into a fierce storm. Crew and passengers threw freight overboard (but not the coinage) to lighten the ship but she could not be saved. Finally, the captain gave the order: "Abandon ship!" The crew and the 59 passengers climbed into four lifeboats and onto a raft. And the Republic went to the bottom.

Fast forward to the 1990s. Odyssey Marine Exploration, a treasure-hunting outfit headed by Tampa entrepreneurs Greg Stemm and John Morris, took an interest in the story. But how could they find the wreck ?

Modern computer technology gave them the answer. They fed information on wind speeds, bearings from rescue ships' logs, survivors' accounts (all but 12 of the crew and passengers survived) and other data into a computer and came up with a square measuring 50 km each way, about 160 km southeast of Savannah, Ga.


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