By Jennifer Grimes
Triplicate staff writer
The contents of the wrecked steamer S.S. Brother Jonathan can reveal a lot about life in 1865, but just how that story will be told remains unknown.
A major investor in the salvage company, now operating off Crescent City, thinks a museum should rise here to tell the tale of Californias worst maritime disaster. But thats far from assured.
One person who hopes something is done is Sean Smith, of the Del Norte Historical Society.
These things tell a story, Smith said of the artifacts still on the wreck. The Historical Society has been the recipient of many of Brother Jonathan artifacts from past dives.
Theres a huge group of bottles down there, for instance, that held medicines and hygiene products. And if put together, we could learn something from them, he said.
The Brother Jonathan, Crescent Citys most famous wreck, was a cargo ship carrying trade goods and supplies to Portland and Alaska. It was also a deluxe steamer with lavish state rooms and lounges. One of president Lincolns Generals was carrying an Army payroll and loads of gold coin and bullion for Indian treaty negotiations. In addition, the ship had a safe carrying passengers jewelry and other valuables.
Deep Sea Research, Inc., the salvagers of the wreck, were involved in a nine year court battle with the State of California over the rights to recover her treasure.
In the end, the United States district court decided California gets the property rights to the wrecks contents.
The same court awarded Deep Sea Research 80 percent of any treasure trove found, but barred them from the rest.
The dispute was over DSR having the right to salvage the wreck or whether the state could control the salvage, said Peter Pelkofer, the former attorney for the California State Lands Commission in the case.
Pelkofer said his central desire is to leave the wreck site totally intact until someone is willing to do a careful archeological investigation on it. He says he fears any treasure hunting done on it will damage the site and ruin its historical integrity. A staff member with the state Lands Commission is on board to make sure the wreck and its artifacts are left in place.
Dwight Manley, a sports agent from Newport Beach and a major investor for Deep Sea Research, visited Crescent City to check on salvaging operations, and said he sees things differently.
I would put money into lifting the whole thing up and making a museum with it for Crescent City, Manley said.
And why dont they want the artifacts up? Why do they want to leave it down there? If a bus wrecked on the side of the road, would they just it leave there? he said.
In response, Goodyear Walker, the state official in charge of shipwrecks, said Manleys idea of a museum is a great one, but wonders at its feasibility.
Actually, thats exactly what we want done, Walker said. He hasnt talked to me about it, but we would obviously look favorably on that.
Two major factors affect the probability of such a project, say Walker and Smith. The first is the success of the treasure hunt.
If they find the safe, theyre in fat city and a museum would be a piece of cake for the investors. But if they dont, it will be hard, after spending millions on the operation, to justify a museum to the rest of the investors, Walker said.
The second factor of probability is the large amount of time, money and energy needed to conserve, preserve and display the artifacts, say Walker and Smith.
It takes almost two years to process and treat these artifacts (from the Brother Jonathan), said Smith. They have to be soaked in distilled water to leach out the chlorides, then scrubbed, then soaked again. It takes a long time and a lot of diligence.
Still, the history attached to the ships journey is fascinating to historians working on the salvage operation.
Washington wasnt even a state then. There were signed papers from president Lincoln being sent with the famous General Wright on the ship. And Lincoln had just died four months before that, said ship historian Bob Evans.
There was also a lot of rare paper money on board that was commissioned just after the civil war, he added.
Manley said he wonders why the state doesnt kick in their 20 percent of the findings to Crescent City and a Brother Jonathan museum.
Walker said the state used the coins they received from the salvage dive in 1997 to make a historical display in the capital dome in Sacramento.
There was a tremendous response to the exhibit here. Those are really special coins. Just beautiful. And I think Crescent City is where a Brother Jonathan museum belongs. Its definitely our first choice to have it where the wreck took place, he said.
As for investor Manleys offer to fund the excavation of the wreck and a museum here, Walker says it can be done if the right steps are followed.
We would want a plan in place as to where, when and how the artifacts would be cared for and displayed. But all they need to do is contact me, Walker said.