San Diego James Nesbit, the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, sat quietly on deck, writing. He made out a will. He wrote notes to loved ones. He wrapped the documents in oilskin and tied them to his body.
Captain Samuel De Wolf shouted across the waters to Jacob Yates, his quartermaster, "Tell them if they had not overloaded us, we would have got through all right, and this would never have happened!"
Then the 20-foot swells lifted the paddle wheeler Brother Jonathan off the submerged rock she had struck and broke over her. It was 2:30 in the afternoon on July 30, 1865. Brother Jonathan went straight to the bottom. Yates and 18 others survived, thanks to the one seaworthy lifeboat. Nesbit, Captain De Wolf, 204 passengers and crew, and two camels on their way to a circus in Oregon drowned on the surface or went down with her.
So did four boxes of gold.
It's not the Titanic, but 132 years later, Brother Jonathan remains the worst human disaster in California's maritime history. It's also the richest underwater treasure on the coast. Now the spotlight is on those four boxes of gold, valued upwards of $100 million. The battle over who owns it -- the salvagers or the State of California -- has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
Two key members of the salvage group are San Diegans. David Flohr of El Cajon, a retired Navy pilot and one of the partners in Deep Sea Research (DSR), a consortium that found the wreck 4 years ago after 20 years' search, is heartsick about the whole thing. "I've been 7 years on this project," he says. "This is an outrageous usurpation of private citizens' rights. We had no idea that the State of California would be as intrusive as it has been," he told the Journal of Commerce, a Sacramento-based paper, last summer. "It's been a nightmare for us."
In the State of California v. Deep Sea Research, the case being considered by the Supreme Court, DSR faces a state suit buttressed by friend-of-the-court briefs from 15 other states and 10 historical preservation societies. In the case, which could define future rules of salvage nationwide, state authorities are pitting California law against federal law, and challenging the traditional rights of salvagers. California claims ownership to any and all wrecks on its coast, in the interests of preserving history.
And when it comes to shipwreck history, California has it. The state has harvested a rich collection of disasters, from Manila galleons to lumber ships to tankers. Sixteen hundred relics are said to be strewn along California's 1000-mile coastline; 450 of them off the state's northern sector. Till now, most wrecks were too deep, in waters too cold and currents too strong for sunken-treasure hunting. But not with the new robotic technologies that have come along. That's why the state wants to wrest control from the treasure hunters and the pro-salvage admiralty laws while it can. Brother Jonathan is the test case.
"[Brother Jonathan] belongs to us now," asserts California's state land commission attorney Peter Pelkofer. "So all [the salvagers are] getting is whatever we're willing to give [them] for bringing it up."
Flohr's colleague, Dr. Willard Bascom, a La Jolla-based oceanographer who is documenting the Brother Jonathan salvage saga in a book, doesn't dispute that their primary goal was treasure, not historic preservation. "Yes, we're after the gold that's on the ship," he admits.
The question remains: how much gold is there? Legends abound -- that she was carrying 1.5 tons of gold bullion to pacify Northwest Indians under a treaty; that she was carrying $250,000 in pay for soldiers based at the Columbia River (probably in greenback dollars, not gold); that she had gold destined for the Canadian government. Brother Jonathan was also rumored to be carrying $140,000 to be couriered north by a Wells Fargo agent, money for northwest fur traders, and 346 barrels of whiskey. Newspapers reporting the sinking said the cargo was worth $48,112. Flohr reckons in today's values, it's worth "anything from $50 million to $100 million."
DSR claims to have spent "over $1 million" looking for the old steamer. Part of the reason for the expense is the conditions. "They're extremely difficult," says Bascom. "The water's very cold. There's a steady current up there. The surface conditions are really volatile. There's a strong surf. They can only work for a month out of the year at most."
On October 1, 1993, DSR's minisubmarine finally achieved what an estimated 45 previous expeditions had failed to do: it located Brother Jonathan 260 feet down, in murky waters ten miles northwest of Crescent City, near the California-Oregon border. They plucked a few items -- a porcelain plate, a black wine bottle, a medicine bottle -- to use as proof to the federal district court that they had found the old paddle-wheeler. With that proof, they could lay the traditional salvors' claim to ownership.
It took another three years' searching to confirm that gold was aboard. "There are almost certainly about four boxes of it," says Willard Bascom. "The question is, exactly where in all this pile of wreckage is the gold? [Last year] we had submarines down diving on it. One day a guy surfaced, saying, 'I think I saw some gold coins lying on the bottom.' So we said, 'Okay. Go back down again with the submarine and stay on the site there with the light pointed where you think the gold coins are, and just wait there.' The sub was back up in ten minutes. They said, 'We couldn't see a thing down there. The visibility was terrible. We could see the divers were there, and they were busy doing something.'
"But the divers had to take an hour and a half to decompress on the way back up. So somebody says, 'Gee. I'll look in the saddlebags.' These small submarines have bags on them, something like saddlebags on a horse. So he climbs over and tosses one on the deck. And everybody crowds around it, and finally somebody opens the bag, and it's jammed with gold!"