We’ve all learned a few things from our weekly treasure quest. We learned that gold and silver have, only until very recently, served as the basis of economic trade in the world. We learned that, starting around the middle of the 15th century until the early 1900s, a lot of that gold and silver was transported by ships and quite a few of those ships sank, taking their treasure to the bottom with them. We also learned that a ship design popular in the mid-1800s, called a side-wheel steamer, was inherently unstable in rough seas.
So it is that we find ourselves on another Friday with another story of a side-wheel steamer that sank in rough seas with a great loss of life and a cargo hold full of gold coins, gold bars and a large amount of what was, at the time, newfangled paper currency.
The S.S. Brother Jonathan was a 220-foot long, 36-foot wide side-wheel steamer that used a combination of steam and sail to make her regular run between San Francisco and Vancouver via Portland, Oregon. The Brother Jonathan had a reputation of being one of the finest steamers on the Pacific coast, able to make the trip in just sixty-nine hours in both directions.
The Brother Jonathan routinely carried a lot of gold that had made its way overland to Vancouver and Portland, then by ship to San Francisco where it was minted into new coins, which were then shipped back north. It was on such a northerly trip that the S.S. Brother Jonathan set out in late July, 1865, with its cargo hold loaded with $50 million in gold, which included gold bars and freshly minted $20 Double Eagle gold coins. Along with the gold were 240 passengers and crew, along with an Army payroll of $200,000 in paper money.
The Brother Jonathan sailed into Crescent City, California, for a short port call after battling fierce winds and seas for thirty-four hours on the trip from San Francisco. On July 30, 1865, she left Crescent City under skies that were clear and blue, though the winds were still brisk and stormy. Anyone who’s lived in the Northwest can attest that the real threat comes from straight line winds powering what are called Mid-Latitude Gales that can go on for days. It was such a storm that Brother Jonathan sailed into on that sunny Sunday morning and, within minutes, the ship and crew found itself in the midst of terrible seas and even more stormy conditions.
The captain quickly ordered a return to Crescent City, but the ship struck a rock that bashed a huge hole in the side and sent the nine story mast crashing through the bottom of the ship, effectively pinning it to the uncharted reef. Thirty foot waves washed screaming passengers off the decks and, though the ship should have had enough lifeboats for all the passengers, they couldn’t be launched in heavy seas. In the end just one lifeboat with nineteen passengers made it ashore, everyone else aboard was lost to the cold, stormy waters and wicked currents around the Oregon coast. No remains were ever found.
Even though the wreck was close to shore the ship had drifted underwater after it sank and was eventually located miles from where it was presumed to have gone down. In the late 1990s and 2000 salvage efforts recovered roughly 1,207 gold coins, most still stacked and wrapped in oil paper and preserved in near-mint condition.
Another thing we’ve learned is that with any treasure there will be a spirited court fight over ownership. Families of the lost and the state of California all sued to get a piece of the pie. After all the legal fees and settlements, the salvage company barely recovered its initial investment.
But the story of the S.S. Brother Jonathan is certainly not over. The gold recovered can only be a tiny fraction of what went down with the ship. Even though the salvage team found the remains of the ship, there was no definitive word that they found the huge safe where gold and passenger valuables were stored. As the ship broke up the safe could have dropped to the bottom anywhere along the drift line between the fatal reef and the ship’s final resting place.
One thing is certain; the treasure of the S.S. Brother Jonathan won’t be discovered by sport divers. It’s entombed in cold, treacherous waters to this day, with strong, swirling currents and numerous rocky reefs. Storms roll in off the ocean with frightening speed and little warning, even in these times of modern radar and weather satellites. Though it lies tantalizingly close to shore, the bulk of the Brother Jonathan’s treasure, like its lost passengers, will likely never be found.