TREASURE HUNTERS END SEARCH

October 09, 2000 12:00 am

By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

The gamble of treasure hunting on the Brother Jonathan wreckage off Crescent City may not have paid off this year.

Despite finding small caches of gold coins and interesting artifacts, the ships safe reportedly holding millions remains elusive. And the plan is to pull up anchor in only four more days.

We really havent found enough to make it worthwhile to the investor, so I dont know if hell do it again next year or not, said John Ferrar, head of land operations for the Deep Sea Research salvaging company.

The SS Brother Jonathan was heavily laden with cargo of all kinds and carrying gold coins, bullion and jewelry when in 1865 it broke up in a fierce gale after hitting a rock.

About 214 people died in what is still the states second worst maritime disaster. Almost since the day it sank, treasure hunters speculated about its location until, in 1993, a fisherman brought up part of the wreck in his net, and California based Deep Sea Research discovered the exact location and went to work to salvage the gold.

The state and Deep Sea Research, after a nine year legal battle, agreed to a settlement, but treasure hunters say the state continues to pester salvagers.

They constantly fight us, said Ferrar. The state says to leave the artifacts down there, even though their own representative says theres good stuff being set aside, Ferrar said.

The settlement agreement gives the state of California rights to the wreckage and DSR the right to hunt the gold and nothing else.

To assure DSR would stick to the agreement, the state sent a representative archeologist to oversee the operations.

Even so, the rules of the game are confusing to those involved. The divers were recently instructed to raise seven milk crates full of medicine bottles, cruettes, and wine glasses, among other things, by the states representative.

Several bottles of Dr. Wistars Balsom of Cherry (still full and corked), scads of Mrs. Winslows Soothing Syrup (a mix of opium and alcohol), loads of Burnetts Apothecary bottles and a few bottles of wine were among the bounty.

All of it will go to the Del Norte Historical Society museum, according to Rob Reedy, DSRs archeologist.

The nice thing about this collection is you can see it as a set and know where it came from. That kind of information adds a lot more meaning to it - otherwise, its just a bunch of old bottles, said Diana Cooper, a private archeologist on the project.

The prize artifact found and brought up thus far, is the sextant used by the Brother Jonathans captain DeWolf.

A sextant is a navigational tool used to plot latitude and longitude. And according to the states archeologist, Brian Sturgis, a piece treasured by a ships captain of that era.

Finding it helps identify an area that would likely be the wheel room, because a sextant is a very personal item owned by a captain, and moreover, it was a crucial and protected instrument, Sturgis said.

Watching the video feed from a divers helmet Friday, it was easy to get impressions of the trauma Brother Jonathan experienced as it went down that stormy day.

Lots of white plates, coffee cups and silverware are eerily scattered on the sea bottom a dining room tossed of its contents during the violence of the wreck.

The video feed also showed a diver finding a single gold coin in that area and it was quickly brought to the surface.

Still wet from its home of 135 years at the bottom of the sea, an examination by Harvey Harrington, the projects director, showed it was a $5 coin from1858.

Though some of the crew said the find was promising, Harrington said hes still not sure he will come back next year to continue the search.

Although this years efforts apparently did not yield large numbers of gold coins, past dives brought up boxes of freshly minted gold pieces from 1865. An auction of the coins in 1999 yielded $5.3 million.