By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Under cover of morning darkness and fog Wednesday, a water taxi named Superstar cut through the rippled waters off Crescent City.

Its destination? The American Salvor, a 213-foot ship anchored over the wreck of the Brother Jonathan, a steamer which went down in a fierce gale near Crescent City 135 years ago.

The crew of the Salvor is bringing up artifacts from the sunken ship, but a treasure trove of gold, in bullion and coins, is the primary objective.

Theres a whole lot of unknowns on the Brother Jonathan, said Bob Evans, a historian and geologist who represents one of the main investors in the salvage operation. Youve got sinking dynamics as well as degradation affecting the search of the wreck.

Evans said the Brother Jonathan went down on its nose in 1865, as it struggled against the gale and tried to make it back to the safety of Crescent Citys harbor. As it struggled against the heavy seas, its hull was torn by a huge rock and more than 200 people died in what is still the states worst maritime disaster.

Yesterday, however, the ocean was as smooth as a pond, making it easy for Superstar to come along side the Salvor.

Once aboard, Evans led the way into the labyrinth of metal staircases, hallways and side rooms of the giant ship.

In the galley hangs a grid map of the wreck site. Every square yard of it is marked off by crew members betting where the gold is.

At 7 a.m., some of the crew had just rolled out of bed. They were headed across the helicopter pad to the back of the ship where a huge, motor driven winch was pulling up a 1,500 pound chamber from the ocean floor.

DIVERS ON THE BELL. DIVERS ON THE BELL, boomed from the ships public address system.

The diving bell rose from the water and was lifted to the deck where it docked with a huge decompression chamber, like the space shuttle connecting to space station Muir.

Inside were two divers who had just finished their 10-hour tour of sifting through the wreck.

All of the working divers have been eating, sleeping and otherwise living in a tank-like chamber for the last 27 days. It is too small to stand up in, but they must remain in the chamber to be able to work at depths of 250 feet.

These divers are existing in an even more alien atmosphere than astronauts, because astronauts get to breathe fairly normal air, Evans said.

They go from one enclosed chamber to the next and then into the water for their diving shift. How their perception of physical reality is affected by this is a question plaguing the minds of many on board.

If the divers find treasures worth bringing up, they are either placed in a bag and tied outside the bell, or left in the bell for the crew to retrieve after the divers exit it.

Two promising boxes were brought up Tuesday. They measured three feet by three feet by two feet tall, were heavy and looked to be made of iron.

This box is so degraded, we couldnt find a strong place on the lid to open it by, said Evans. We had to choose a corner and just chip away until we could tell what was in it.

Nautical archeologist Rob Reedy revealed the ends of several axe handles layered in the rock encrusted box. They were most certainly headed for gold miners in Alaska.

It turned out to be a wooden box. We brought it up thinking it was iron, which would be perfect for carrying gold coins, Evans said.

The other box was also wooden and full of different kinds of nails.

Reedy dresses in white coveralls and uses a toothbrush and a pick to investigate the material of the boxes.

It takes so much time because its basically like a rock. The minerals have flowed into the pores and hardened, Evans said.

A mobile home type shack sits on the back of the third deck by the divers chambers. Representative scientists of the State of California and members of the crew use this building to oversee the divers methods.

They watch a video monitor linked to cameras fixed to the divers helmets.

This is pretty much what we do all day -- watching what theyre doing and finding, Evans said.

The video feed is surprisingly clear. Its easy to see the divers hands manipulating druggists bottles and gobbs of debris. At one exciting moment, a wooden box emerged as the divers hands pulled it from the silty surface of the wreck. Everyone in the video viewing room went completely silent. No one knows yet what that box might contain.

Evans and Reedy say the divers have recovered a significant amount of gold and located a promising box that may prove lucrative. They are secretive, however, about specific details.

One of my favorite quotes is from the diary of an old Wells Fargo currier: Secrecy is the main guard and protection of all express business, meaning: if the bad guys dont know what your system is, theres less chance of them breaching it, Evans said.

Controversy still surrounds the salvaging possibilities of the wreck and what it could mean to Crescent City.

The mention of a museum full of the Brother Jonathans artifacts, history and memorabilia has been made by the main investor in the salvaging operation. Yet the state retains control of these items and has not responded favorably to the idea.

These issues will be addressed in part two of the series tomorrow.