Submitted by admin on April 22, 2009 - 21:25
A different story altogether is that of the sunken gold of the 13,415-ton trans-Pacific liner Niagara which sank in 70 fathoms of water on the morning of 19 June 1940 after striking a German mine. She carried gold bullion to the value of considerably more than £2,500,000. The ship's entire complement of 349 – 146 passengers and 203 of a crew — were taken off and reached Auckland safely before the day was out. But the contents of the Niagara's strongroom, 590 gold ingots worth £4,300 each, lay more than 400 ft beneath the waves. The gold was a shipment destined for America and owned by the Bank of England. Notwithstanding the exigencies of war, the Bank had salvage operations in hand within six months.
A Melbourne salvage company, United Salvage Proprietary Ltd., contracted to recover the gold and commenced operations from Whangarei on 15 December 1940 in the Claymore, an old ship of 260 tons purchased for the purpose. On 2 February 1941 the wreck of the Niagara was located in 438 ft of water, the greatest depth at which salvage operations had ever been carried out up to that time. It was a long and hazardous task. Weather conditions were frequently impossible, and there was a constant menace from mines, which on two occasions all but compassed the destruction of the Claymore and her crew of 18. After nine months of blasting and cutting away the structure of the wreck to gain access to the strongroom, the first two ingots, £8,600 worth, were recovered. Two days later the Claymore sailed into Whangarei Harbour with £84,600 worth of bullion in her hold. When operations finally ceased, on 8 December 1941, no fewer than 555 ingots, valued at £2,379,000, or 94 per cent of the total shipment, had been salvaged. It was estimated that £284,000 worth of gold still remained in the ship. The operations were directed by Captain J. P. Williams, managing director of the salvage company, and Captain J. W. Herd, representing the London Salvage Association. Practically the whole of the underwater work fell to J. and W. Johnstone, two brothers from Australia celebrated for their diving achievements.
Considering the depth at which the remaining Niagara gold lay hidden, and the fact that inaccessibility alone prevented the Claymore expedition from recovering the full complement of bullion, it might have been expected that the chronicle of Niagara gold would have ended with the weighing of the Claymore's anchor. But gold is gold wherever it may lie hidden, and in the latter years of the forties calculating eyes were cast at the waters covering the sunken liner. In 1947, in 1949, and again in the early 1950s further thought was given to the quarter of a million pounds' worth of gold still to be salvaged; but it was not until April 1953 that the diver brothers, J. and W. Johnstone, could find the backing to carry out their intentions. One of the factors leading to the eventual resumption of salvage operations was a rise in the price of gold which increased the market value of each ingot from £4,300 to nearly 6,000. The divers returned to Whangarei Harbour in April 1953 on the salvage craft Foremost 17, with a personnel of 15, and after about five weeks' work, nine of the 35 bars of gold still beneath the sea were brought into port. When in July of the same year the salvors decided to abandon operations, there were only five bars left on the sea floor. Thirty bars, valued at approximately £180,000, had been recovered. As for the rest, the divers considered further efforts impracticable.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.