Greg Stemm will always remember the moment he first encountered the sunken treasure of the S.S. Republic, he told Numismatic News.
It’s burned in his memory and now being shared in a new book entitled Lost Gold of the Republic, published in September.
The salvage company Stemm co-founded with John Morris, Odyssey Marine, had found the wreck in the summer of 2003 and was set to begin excavation when they struck paydirt.
“As we began testing our Sediment Removal and Filtration System in a sandy area near the stern of the ship, a coin suddenly appeared in a wisp of sand being gently dispersed by ZEUS,” said Stemm.
“We saw the coin appear in realtime 1,700 feet above on the ocean surface on our ship’s high-definition monitors. You can imagine the excitement when that first coin appeared, then another and another, until there was literally a carpet of gold in front of us. It was a sight none of us will ever forget.”
The S.S. Republic was a steamship that got caught in a hurricane and sank off the coast of Georgia in October 1865. Reports said the legendary ship was carrying $400,000 worth of gold and silver coins at the time.
Over the years, the competition to find the wreck was fierce. Still, Stemm always figured Odyssey had the best shot.
“While we weren’t the only ones aware of the Republic’s existence, we were confident we had an edge in our research and deep-ocean search capabilities,” said Stemm. “I’d also venture to say that no other company or institution has ever spent as much time and money on a deep ocean archaeological excavation as we did on the Republic.”
That financial outlay almost sank Odyssey Marine. But the company’s persistence paid off in the end. And now, the tale of Odyssey Marine’s formation and the race to find the Republic is the subject of Priit Vesilind’s book. Vesilind has spent 30 years writing on outdoor adventures for National Geographic magazine.
Stemm and Morris founded the company on a simple business model: “There are billions of dollars worth of fascinating shipwrecks lying on the ocean floor and the technology exists to find and recover them,” stated Stemm.
Odyssey’s exploration takes them to the deep water.
“We target vessels with high-value cargo and interesting stories,” explained Stemm.
The research aspect of the business receives top priority, from mapping out as precisely as possible where wrecks are to defining insurance and ownership claims.
Once they find a wreck, Odyssey goes to work.
“We place a great emphasis on the educational and archeological value of a shipwreck,” said Stemm. “In other words, we don’t find a shipwreck and just ‘dig in.’ We do serious archeology on the wreck site, the ship and her contents before we excavate a site. A ship’s history, the stories of her passengers, and the precious snapshot in time that ship cargoes provide are just as valuable to mankind as the treasures we discover.”
And the Republic held riches that exceeded the imaginations of Odyssey’s crew. Over 51,000 gold and silver coins were recovered.
“Being in this business is about dreaming big dreams, so yes, John and I have always believed that something of this magnitude was possible,” said Stemm. “Of course, realizing that dream took a lot of blood, sweat and tears. And years of not giving up. It required tremendous patience when it seemed all we faced were setbacks and grueling tribulations. But, that’s what makes Odyssey’s work so exciting and challenging – it’s what gets all of us out of bed with a jolt in the morning.”
In April, coins from the wreck helped the auction firm of Bowers and Merena realize $5.954 million in the official auction of the American Numismatic Association’s National Money Show.
Stemm said Odyssey did all it could to preserve the coins during excavation.
“The condition of the coins we found was remarkable,” said Stemm. “One minor scratch could literally reduce the value of the coin by tens of thousands of dollars. Not only were the coins in surprisingly good condition, some of them were also extremely rare, thus increasing the need for gentle handling.”
Using advanced technology, Odyssey’s crew handled the items with extreme care despite working long hours.
“The actual delicate archaeological work is done by ZEUS, our eight-ton ROV,” said Stemm. “They not only keep ZEUS working round the clock, they must also fly the ROV delicately into position and control the manipulator arms and limpet to delicately recover artifacts and other items, all while maintaining a steady stream of positioning data for mapping the site.”
The work days were long.
“There were times when ZEUS worked for days straight with the longest dive clocking 72.5 hours,” said Stemm. “Often the dives were terminated because ZEUS was loaded to capacity with coins.”
All this after a long search for a ship that remained hidden for 140 years.
“The last two years of our search alone, we searched over a 1,000-square mile area of the Atlantic using side-scan sonar towed behind our research ship,” said Stemm. “Once we located promising underwater anomalies, we’d send in an ROV to further examine what actually rested at the bottom of the ocean.”
There were false alarms.
“Before we discovered the Republic, we also located other deep-water shipwrecks of interest, as well as many other curious targets including a modern sailing yacht and a jet fighter,” said Stemm.
The Republic was found in 1,700 feet of water about 100 miles off the coast of Georgia. “We knew for certain we had the Republic when we were able to find and recover the ship’s bell,” said Stemm.
Excavation work was difficult.
“One of the challenges of excavating the Republic was working in the Gulf Stream, which is an incredibly powerful current, sometimes reaching over five knots,” said Stemm. “The work required a talented and focused crew, as well as an ROV powerful enough to work deftly in such a swift current. In addition, we had to be creative and innovative on the fly, literally creating new methods and modifications to existing equipment to pick up over 51,000 coins and 14,000 artifacts at tremendous depths in an extremely difficult work environment.”
Odyssey found bottles of all types, containing fruits, preserves, patent medicines and cure-alls of the time. Personal effects including rare porcelain angels, religious icons, writing utensils and tea sets and china were discovered, along with slates destined for schools. To view many of the items, visit www.shipwreck.net.
“Each of these pieces, some of which are one of a kind, tell a fascinating story about the passengers, their historical period, and how people lived day to day in the 1800s,” said Stemm. “These kinds of discoveries are as significant as gold and silver coins.”