May 11, 1999
Bowers and Merena, Inc. will offer the sunken treasure from the sidewheel steamship S.S. Jonathan at auction in Los Angeles, Calif., May 29-30. The treasure includes 1,207 gold coins from 1865 and before. Nearly all the coins were struck at the San Francisco mint.
When the ill-fated S.S. Jonathan sank to its watery grave on the Sunday afternoon of July 30, 1865, taking some 500 tons of cargo with it, including a quartz-stamping mill destined for an Idaho gold mine; over 300 barrels of whiskey; machinery for a woolen mill in Oregon; and precious cargo given to the purser for safekeeping. That valuable cargo was said to have included hundreds of thousands of dollars in large $20 gold double eagles, $10 gold coins and $200,000 in newly printed federal currency notes.
The sidewheel steamboat set sail from San Francisco, bound for Portland, carrying 150 or more passengers. Among them were the illustrious Gen. George Wright, prominent Civil War hero of Calif., his wife and a close friend of the late President Lincoln, Anson G. Henry, who was on his way to take his post as the new governor of Washington Territory. William Logan, one of Henry's friends, was heading to Oregon boom town The Dalles to oversee construction of the newly-authorized federal mint. Well-known madame, Rosanna Keenan was also aboard, accompanied with seven attractive women, their intent seemingly apparent. The editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, James Nisbet, planned to continue onwards to Victoria, British Columbia.
When the elegantly appointed steamboat met foul weather in its second day of travel, it smashed into a large uncharted rock shortly after one o'clock in the afternoon. As the ship collapsed around them, those who were able, made their way to life-boats in a desperate attempt to make it to shore. Only one small wooden boat was successful, some of its occupants still dressed in their night clothes and soaking wet. They watched the popular and luxurious S.S. Jonathan slip beneath the waves.
Many have searched for the lost treasure trove of the S.S. Jonathan over the past century, but it wasn't until 1993 that the wreck was finally located. In 1996, the tumbled cargo containers and debris including parts of the steam engine were found, but still no gold. Finally, on August 30, 1996, Harvey Harrington and David Slater, of Deep Sea Research, Inc. (DSR) spotted gold while they were exploring the wreck in Delta, a two-man submersible. They shared the good news with the waiting crew of the M/V Cavalier. In his book, The Treasure Ship S.S. Brother Jonathan, Q. David Bowers, of Bowers and Merena recounts the drama as he witnessed it, in tantalizing detail.
The first bags of coins brought back to the surface that day, contained 564 gold $20 double eagles, some of them in mint condition. A total of 875 coins were recovered in 1996, and an additional 332 coins were salvaged the following year. Battling the elements and difficult bottom conditions were not the only obstacles the DSR team faced, however. The State of California tried to deter their activities through several court battles leading all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in DSR's favor.
To prevent any further delays, DSR granted 200 coins to the State of California, which agreed to keep them off the market for 15 years. As for the rest of the magnificent treasure, collectors will have a chance to own a piece of the colorful S.S. Jonathan history at the Bowers and Merena auction, May 29th at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott. For more information on lot viewings, bidding, auction catalog and to order your copy of Bowers' new book, contact Bowers and Merena at (800) 222-5993.