Shipwreck and gold - Part 2

Interesting research related to Maritime Maine
By Charles H. Lagerbom | Jun 10, 2021
An image from the Australian National Maritime Museum shows David Ashworth, survivor of the General Grant shipwreck, who was in turn lost during a salvage attempt of the shipwreck. (In the Public Domain).

Soon after the rescued survivors of General Grant returned to civilization, the irresistible siren-song began about golden treasure just sitting there waiting for whoever was quick enough, bold enough and competent enough to grab it. A series of search and salvage attempts were soon launched.

The first happened in March 1868 within two years of the wreck and just months after survivors arrived in New Zealand. The paddle tug Southland was first to arrive; on board was survivor James Teer. But bad weather descended on them, and they soon had to abandon any salvage.

The schooner Daphne tried next in 1870, with another General Grant survivor, David Ashworth. This attempt was abandoned after their small boat with five men including Ashworth, disappeared while searching for the cave.

In 1876, a third known attempt included yet another survivor, Cornelius Drew. They sailed aboard schooner Flora but were unsuccessful again due to horrendous weather. The following year, steamer Gazelle tried to locate General Grant and actually found the likely cave but was unable to send any of its divers down for a look. Weather and water conditions were atrocious.

Another attempt in 1912 proved a total failure as well as one in 1914. That one ended when the salvage ship involved was wrecked in the stormy waters. Organizers tried again in 1915 and 1916, finally succeeding in at least sending divers down for a look. They had to abort further salvage operations when they ran out of funding.

By the 1970s, interest once again reignited about General Grant and possible gold, with the New Zealand publication of Keith Eunson’s book "The Wreck of the General Grant." In 1975, it was announced that a salvage attempt had located a submerged wreck in the vicinity of where people believe the ship sank. Royal Navy commander John Grattan even recovered some artifacts from the wreck but was unable to positively identify it as General Grant. The following year, Grattan returned to find a rival salvage operation had moved into position and taken up the search.

New Zealand authorities soon got involved by issuing necessary permits and permissions. This tended to keep a lot of low-budget gold seekers from even making the attempt but also may have helped keep many low-key or secret attempts even more unofficial.

A 1986 salvage attempt identified the wreck Grattan had found as the French ship Anjou, lost in the same general area in 1905. Continuing, searchers found some coins and other ship artifacts which proved promising but just as they thought they might be getting close, a distress call from a nearby stricken Russian ocean liner obliged the team to go to their assistance. The weather window closed soon after.

In 1994, John Grattan tried to raise $4 million for another attempt on General Grant but was unsuccessful in arranging enough interest in the project. Those who did invest ended up losing their money.

By mid-1990s, the Maritime Archaeological Association of New Zealand got involved in any attempts to search for or salvage the General Grant. They helped with recovery and identification of all excavated material from a wreck site which had been located in 1986. It was known as the Half-Crown Site.

One artifact recovered which showed promise was a lavatory flush lever. It was a toggle handle and counterweight similar to artifacts recovered from the wreck site of American Civil War Confederate raider CSS Alabama off Cherbourg, France. Alabama is contemporaneous with the building and loss of General Grant. But further analysis of other evidence, indicates an earlier date for this wreck, possibly as early as the 1830s and of English origin rather than American.

For the last 150 years, interest in the General Grant wreck has remained constant. The siren-call of possible gold treasure no doubt helps keep it alive. Occasionally, one comes across a news report about some new attempt, using new technology or a new salvage technique or some newly discovered information about the ship, its people or cargo.

In 1996, New Zealand’s Reserve Bank issued a $10 semi-proof commemorative coin featuring the stricken ship. On the obverse is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The reverse image contains the legend: Sinking Of The General Grant $10. It was designed by artist Maurice Conly and only 650 were issued. Appropriately enough, it was the second coin in a series referred to as "Gold Fever."

In 1999, a company called Seaworks placed two vessels in the Southern Ocean as part of a marine surveying contract. One worked near the Auckland Islands. The vessel Seasurveyor was used to search for General Grant. Bill Day, director of Seaworks and veteran of two earlier recovery attempts, used Seasurveyor to mount his third attempt at finding the wreck.

They even put 11 divers into the water for a shoreline visual survey. Nothing promising was reported, even after swimming close to 40 nautical miles along the west coast of the island. Of the 26 days on site, weather cooperated enough for only three days of underwater search.

One search effort in 2000 was actually foiled by the presence of an invasive seaweed. At least that was the reported reason. In 2009 Madelene Ferguson Allen published "The General Grant’s Gold: Shipwreck and Greed in the Southern Ocean" and once again interest spiked in the treasure of the General Grant.

By 2010, 36 officially reported salvage operations had searched for General Grant and its gold, 19 of which actually arrived on site. Three within the first eight years of the wreck even involved actual survivors. At least these are the ones we know of or have records about.

Getting to the site is an ordeal in and of itself. Even with arrival at the Auckland Islands, success seems to elude would-be searchers. Efforts are constantly spoiled by factors as frequent storms, rough seas, limited technology, unpredictable water conditions, bad luck, shaky finances and quarrelsome or suspicious crews. After 150 years, those dynamics still appear not to have changed. It is even suggested that the original cave has since eroded, perhaps the wreck lies in open water off the featureless cliffs which ring that side of the island.

Attempts to find gold and salvage it from sunken wrecks are usually filled with tightlipped silence, suspicion, obfuscation, misinformation and sometimes even total deception. It is possible one of the many earlier efforts had actually been successful, but intentionally kept secret.

Or maybe the gold is still there, awaiting the next effort. You can almost feel the pulse quicken at the possibilities, that old gold fever on the rise, filling the mind with ideas on how to find it, retrieve it and spend it. The mystery of the Maine-built General Grant and its gold still intrigues, and the siren-call continues.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine," available through Historypress.com.

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