By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek …..
Just 20 miles off the coast of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, a shipwreck dating back to the early 1840s could yield a cache of rare gold coins from the Dahlonega and Charlotte Mints. Divers have already brought up a number of rare coins from the sunken remains of the Steamship North Carolina, which collided with its sister vessel Governor Dudley on July 25, 1840. North Carolina was essentially cut in half by Governor Dudley, sending the decks of the doomed ship under the water in 10 minutes.
Thankfully no lives were lost in the collision, and passengers and crew from North Carolina were rescued and safely placed aboard Governor Dudley. But most of the people aboard the sinking ship had little time or opportunity amid the melee to claim their cargo before it plummeted to depths of more than 70 feet below the surface. In trunks full of clothing and other personal effects were potentially thousands of gold coins. The items lay under the Atlantic waters for years before attempts were made to recover the treasure.
Now, a team of archeologists and divers with Blue Water Ventures International (BWVI) and Endurance Exploration Group are hoping to recover the gold coins from the site dubbed “The Copper Pot”, including several mid-1830s gold half eagles, 19th-century silverware, and marble. Many of the coins are believed to be from the Dahlonega branch mint in Georgia. Along with the Dahlonega gold coins, some gold coinage of similar rarity from the Charlotte, North Carolina Mint have also been recovered, not to mention other valuable relics that went down in the incident.
The recovered coins are reportedly in excellent condition, with BWVI President Keith Webb saying, “[t]he coins look almost as if they were just minted and it’s blowing our minds. It’s because they were hidden by a large piece of copper and were not moved around in the sand by the current.”
Most of the coins were reported stowed away in steamers, with one passenger claiming a loss of $15,000 USD. Most of the tens of millions of dollars that went down were in gold coins – many potentially Dahlonega-minted gold coins, which many of the 56 passengers–among whom were about a dozen senators and congressmen–and crew likely would have been carrying.
Dahlonega gold coins, bearing a “D” mintmark long before the Denver Mint utilized the same mintmark beginning in 1906, are among the rarest breed of all pre-1933 United States gold coins. The Dahlonega Mint operated from 1838 through 1861, which is also the period during which the Charlotte Mint struck gold coinage with its “C” mintmark. Over the course of 24 years, the Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints struck relatively small quantities of coins, with mintage figures typically ranging in just four or five digits.
Most Charlotte and Dahlonega coins were melted, damaged, worn beyond recognition or otherwise lost and thus the numbers of remaining survivors are much smaller still than even their tiny mintage figures would suggest. Many of these surviving coins exhibit strike issues and the vast majority are known in well-circulated grades. So, if the wreckage from the Steamship North Carolina yields a bevy of uncirculated or otherwise high-grade or well-struck examples of Charlotte- and Dahlonega-minted coins, it could prove a huge boon for collectors.
Yet, the emergence of possibly hundreds or even thousands of new Charlotte- and Dahlonega-Mint coins would probably have relatively little if any effect on the values of other C- and D-mint coins due to the overwhelming demand for such pieces.
The Copper Pot site has already proven lucrative to divers from the salvage company Marex, which in 1996 went to the site to begin searching for treasures from the sunken ship. At the time, Marex divers located $700,000 in coins, including some from the Charlotte Mint.
Still, challenges lay ahead for salvage teams.
The Copper Pot lay in shark-infested waters with erratic currents and as little as five feet of visibility. Many of the treasures recovered to date have been buried under several feet of sand, and this has required the use of special equipment that can scout out buried objects and meticulously excavate them from the sand. The challenges in recovering coins and other items from the site are in part why the Marex crew called off the search for further items years ago.
And while the site has proven difficult for dive crews to work, it’s nevertheless a favorite destination for scuba divers because of its relatively easy access at less than 80 feet below the surface. The boiler, shaft, and hull are intact and measure 200 feet in length, making it a large dive target with an expansive debris field. Meanwhile, BWVI plans to explore the site over the next several years and hopes to recover potentially millions of dollars in treasure, including gold coins.
What types of gold coins could still be hidden away within the wreckage of North Carolina? Obviously, any pieces minted up to the time of the incident in 1840 could possibly be found. As the Dahlonega and Charlotte branch mints were in operation for only three years at the time and neither struck $10 eagles up to that point, any C- and D-minted gold coins that turn up will be $2.50 quarter eagles and $5 half eagles – gold coins in the denominations of $1, $3, and $20 were not struck until many years after the sinking of SS North Carolina.
Certainly, earlier coins from the Philadelphia and New Orleans Mints, which were the only other United States Mint facilities that had been in operation at that time, could also be located. But nobody knows what surprises may be uncovered at the site. With the BWVI team planning on further exploration and recovery at the site, we may hear of many exciting finds from the wreckage of North Carolina in the years ahead.