September 22, 2008

Former Treasure-Hunting Ship Now Rests at Green Cove Dock

By Mary Jo McTammany

She's a lady with a past, a glorious, glittering, golden past, languishing inconspicuously on the St. Johns River, tethered to a pier at Green Cove Springs' Clay County Port in the Reynolds Industrial Park.

Originally, she was christened the Arctic Ranger and was nearing the end of her worthy and perilous workhorse career as a Canadian fishing vessel in 1987 when her future took a dramatic change.

She was purchased by a group of marine treasure hunters led by the charismatic adventurer Tommy Thompson and became part of American history stretching back over 130 years to the mid-1800s and the thrilling, rip-snorting days of the California gold rush.

It seems that in September 1857, the S.S. Central America, a sidewheel steamer, hauling California passengers and cargo on the nine-day trip from Panama to New York, met up with a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas.

Capt. William Lewis Herndon, his crew and passengers put up a valiant fight, but by the second day of 105-mph winds the ship's sails were shredded. The boiler failed when heavy seas wrenched the seals open on the paddlewheels and the desperate bailing they kept up for days proved fruitless.

Herndon went down with his ship. Some passengers and crew members were rescued, but most sank into the depths of the Atlantic along with 38,000 pieces of mail and between 13 and 15 tons of gold destined to shore up the economic panic brewing in New York City.

Thirteen decades later, Tommy Thompson and the Columbus-America Discovery Group with an underwater remotely operated vehicle called Nemo, had located the wreck and staked a legal claim to the site by recovering lumps of coal with the robot and winning an injunction against all competitors. Ready now to seriously begin recovery, they found the Arctic Ranger.

Like fairy godmothers preparing Cinderella for the ball, carpenters, electricians and welders swarmed her bows and in just two months turned the unassuming, weary commercial fishing boat into an unrivaled deep ocean princess of a research vessel bristling with the latest technology. They renamed her Arctic Discoverer.

As summer was ending in 1988, the Arctic Discoverer, sporting her newly installed outboard thrusters, departed on her new mission carrying Thompson and his crew with the undersea robot, Nemo, securely nestled on board.

The ship and her crew successfully rediscovered the California gold. In seas that varied from nearly smooth to waves breaching her decks, the Arctic Discoverer held her position steady as a Midas- like collection of gold ingots, minted $20 coins and nuggets were maneuvered into place. The crew stood proud on her decks to be greeted by a cheering dockside crowd when she returned them safely to port.

Over the generations, there have been tales of hidden gold - from buried pirate treasure to whispers of the treasure of the Confederacy cached somewhere in Clay County. None have proven true and the treasure hunters thwarted.

But the Arctic Discoverer rusting in obscurity lapped by river waves in Green Cove Springs didn't just find gold, but one of the greatest historical treasures.

Acknowledgements: Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder; Clay County Clerk of the Court, Archives and Historical Resources Department, photograph collection.Clay County resident Mary Jo McTammany writes a column for My Clay Sun every other week.

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