National Geographic : 2004 Sep
ROV pilot Gary Peterson deftly maneu vered Zeus to a sandy spot near the Republic's stern. It wasn't an entirely random choice for a probe; the coins found in the wreck of the gold-rush-era steamer CentralAmerica in 1991 had been stored in a safe room near the stern. Technician Alan Smith turned on the Venturi tube and began sucking away the sand. "Stop!" shouted Starr, peering into the monitor screen. "Turn the system off. I see a coin!" The camera zoomed in on the metallic ridge sticking out of the sand. "Nobody said anything," Starr remembered. "We were all stunned. And I finally said to Neil over the intercom, 'You interested in this?'" Soon five more coins emerged from beneath the billowing sand. The team's hunch, indeed the whole exploration plan, had proved correct. They didn't even have a container ready to bring up the coins, how ever, so Zeus scooted out and looked around the wreck site for something appropriate to use. Thus it was that the first 80 gold coins recovered from S.S. Republicwere temporarily Company, which had insured some of the Republic's cargo. Odyssey, it appeared, could keep the rest of the money. Numismatists greeted the collection with awe. A number of individual coins were described as the finest ever found in their categories, and their composite value was estimated at perhaps 75 million dollars. THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE, the great-great granddaughter of William Nichols, teaches art history at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Joining an Odyssey voyage in Feb ruary, she brought with her an heirloom gold chain and locket holding a miniature tintype of the first Thyrza Nichols. The photoengrav ing had held its sharpness over 135 years, and the eyes glinted sternly from a stiff, black New England habit. She had just recently found letters from her family's past, in a musty old family trunk. "We didn't even know about the shipwreck," she said. "That was never talked about. I think The S.S. Republic lay buried in the bed of stored in a white enamel chamber pot. Within days the Venturi unit revealed a cas cade of gold coins, both ten-dollar pieces and twenty-dollar double eagles, spilling from the curved rim of a buried wooden keg. Many were pressed together in stacks like poker chips. On Thursday, November 13, the Odys sey Explorer pulled into its home port of Jack sonville with more than 700 gold and silver coins. Waiting was an expert coin assessor, Rob Westfall of National Gold Exchange, Inc., in Tampa. "These are basically mint-state coins, never circulated," Westfall marveled. "And there's such a diversity of types. To my knowledge there's never been a hoard discovered of Civil War-era coins. This is just amazing." Odyssey knew there would be other claim ants. The U.S. government, for one, had launched an investigation to see if any of the money belonged to a Federal payroll, but that theory proved baseless. And in January 2004 the company paid 1.6 million dollars in compensation to the Atlantic Insurance 126 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * SEPTEMBER 2004 it was only a detail of his life." Indeed, there was more to the man than survival. William Nichols led the 14th Ver mont volunteers against Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, he faced down the unquenchable sorrow of losing a wife and child, and he sired a family whose bonds proved wiry tough. The names Thyrza and Lucy alternated through the generations. His daughter Lucy named her daughter Thyrza. "That was my grandmother," said Goodeve. "My mother was Lucy, and here I am, Thyrza." William Nichols's story was only one among the fortunes of the S.S. Republic's 43 surviving passengers. Even now, preserved in the silent flow of the Gulf Stream, the steamship informs us of a time of bold opportunity and national reconciliation, when men could beat their bayonets into plowshares and their swords into screw harrows. O TAKE A VIRTUAL CRUISE of the sunken steamship, zero in on artifacts on the seafloor, and learn how the wreck mosaic was made at nationalgeographic.com/magazine/0409.