If you ask people about a luxury ocean liner that sank on her maiden voyage, the name that would come to mind for most people would be the Titanic. Yet over fifty years earlier there was another ocean liner, billed as the largest and most luxurious on the seas, which left Galway, Ireland in September of 1860 with 50 first class passengers, 417 in steerage and a crew of 125. The ship made its first stop in St. John’s, Newfoundland, but never made it to its final destination in Boston. In her holds were 10,000 sovereign gold coins, potentially worth millions, plus the accumulated wealth of her first class passengers.
Built for the Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company, Ltd., the SS Connaught was a 380 foot, 2,959 ton iron monster powered through the water by two side-mounted, steam-driven paddle wheels. In the annals of history, the largely forgotten story of the SS Connaught is actually one of heroism and one of the most daring rescues at sea in the history of mankind traveling on the water.
On the 8th of October, 1860, the ship was caught in a sudden storm just one hundred miles from Boston. Side-mounted paddle wheel steamers weren’t the most stable ships in rough waters and the Connaught sprang a leak. Passengers joined with the crew to try and save the ship and, by joint effort, they managed to bring the leak under control. But that heroic effort was soon doomed by a fire that had broken out below decks during the confusion. Smoke and flame quickly filled the lower decks, forcing passengers and crew out onto the open deck with no time to retrieve the gold or any of the passengers’ valuables.
The fire continued to rage below decks and survivors would later claim the hull got so hot that ocean waves would boil on contact with the metal sides of the ship. The captain ordered everyone into the lifeboats but the violent storm quickly smashed those against the scalding sides of the metal hull. Just when it looked like the passengers and crew were doomed, a tiny fruit freighter, the Minni Schiffer and her Captain, John Wilson, appeared out of the gloom.
In a feat of heroism that gets far too little attention in history, Captain Wilson brought the Minni Schiffer alongside the Connaught and threw lines over and, in the midst of tossing, stormy seas, both crews worked in the dark to transfer the women and children over to the smaller ship. Once finished they transferred the male passengers and then the crew. Amazingly, all 591 people aboard the Connaught were transferred to the smaller ship without a single loss of life.
The captain of the Connaught was the last person to leave the ship and, just a few minutes later, passengers and crew watched the big ship pitch over and sink in a 1,000 feet of water taking her treasure of gold down to the bottom. There were so many people on board the Minni Schiffer that they crowded every inch of available deck space and a few even had to hang on to the rigging above the pitching deck of the small ship for the white-knuckle, nighttime journey to Boston Harbor.
Fast-forward 152 years, and in 2012 the Endurance Exploration Group discovered the shipwreck, repeatedly fouled and dragged by fishing nets, some of which still cover the wreck. Some sections of netting stretch hundreds of feet from the ship. Parts of the stern, where the gold was held, have been collapsed by net impacts. The Endurance Group’s next series of dives on the wreck will be with a special net-cutting underwater robot in an effort to clear the ship for salvage.
Largely because there was no loss of life, the story of the Connaught’s sinking, the heroic rescue of her passengers and crew and the mysterious disappearance of the shipwreck and treasure was lost to history, overshadowed by the start of the Civil War just a year later. While this tale of heroism on a genuinely epic scale may have faded, the gold treasure hidden in the wreck still shines and represents a fortune, even by today’s standards.
Will Granderson is a regular columnist for Goldco Precious Metals writing on finance, precious metals, and gold as an investment and in popular culture.