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Interview with Dennis Powers on Treasure Ship

1.  Tell us about how you became interested in writing this book
In 1993, I read the headlines of the San Francisco Chronicle and other national newspapers that intrepid underwater explorers had finally discovered a long-lost, ghost ship that had sunk in 1865 off Northern California.  The media ran fascinating stories about the gold onboard, the Gold Rush and Civil War personalities, and the era.  I was researching then The Raging Sea and filed the articles in an “of great interest file.”  Three years later, I read the headlines about the discovery of gold from a sunken ship and then a United States Supreme Court decision that established leading maritime law—all dealing with the same vessel.  That ship was the Brother Jonathan.

Engaged then in writing and researching a number of books, I continued my clipping file.  I then took the time to look into the Del Norte County Historical Society’s files on the Brother Jonathan, and low and behold, I discovered that they were rich with information, dating back to the ship’s loss off the coast.  In retrospect, Treasure Ship wouldn’t have been written, if I had started in 1993 on that project.  The salvors still had battles to win, expeditions to mount, and undersea explorations to finish.    

2.  How was the researching and writing of this book different from others?

This book was quite different, as I had to head into national archives and depositories around the country to find all of the information on this ship and its sinking.  As the vessel had been lost for nearly one hundred and twenty five years, the story couldn’t depend, of course, on interviewing people and their descendants were difficult to locate.    

The important aspects were meeting and talking in depth with those who led the successful expeditions that finally located the Jonathan, as well as continued in-depth analyses of the newspaper and magazine accounts over the decades.  The intrepidness of two key salvors, Don Knight and David Flohr, stood out, and they graciously gave me the insights into what had actually happened in their successful search for the lost treasure. 

3.  What were the specifics of this research and writing?

Once I put the S.S. Brother Jonathan to the top of my list, I soon became enamored about the stories of its ownership by Cornelius Vanderbilt during the Gold Rush, its use in ferrying gold and prospectors from both coasts, and the important personalities who were onboard.  From Abraham Lincoln’s closest friend and aide (Governor Anson Henry) to the Commander of the Pacific (General George Wright) and a famous, or infamous, madam (Roseanna Keenan), the rich and powerful mingled with families, prospectors, and businessmen. 

I buried myself in wonderful old sea books dating back to the 1840s and 1850s about what travel was like then on the high seas, from California Gold Rush Voyages, 1848-1849: Three Original Narratives to Charles Dickens’ American Notes (1842).  Historians from the San Francisco, Columbia River, and Vancouver Maritime Museums on the U.S. West Coast to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on the East Coast proved very helpful.  Working with the National Archives in Washington, DC, and Regional Archive in San Bruno, California, became nearly a past-time for me, and I was fortunate to inspect records that were nearly two-centuries old.

I tracked down the people who were involved in the discovery, recovery, and fight over the gold of the long-lost sidewheeler.  As I talked at length with the important salvors—Donald Knight, David Flohr, Mark Hemstreet, Sherman Harris, and others—I found myself wondering, “Just how did they do this?”  Chronically under-funded and having to fight off the legal strikes by a state with unlimited financial and personnel resources, the men associated with Deep Sea Research continued to persevere against near overwhelming odds,

Once in the exciting world of ancient and old gold coins and ingots, I enjoyed talking with national experts, ranging from Dr. Dick Doty (the Curator of Numismatics for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.), Harry Forman, and Bob Julian to Jesse Patrick, Dr. Charles Tumosa, and Stack’s in New York City.  I watched the tapes of the 1999 “Great Debate” between Michael Hodder and Professor Buttrey, thanks to the assistance of the American Numismatic Association.        

The controversy over the Brother Jonathan’s gold bars continues to today.  Discovered before the ship had even been located, the powerful of the international numismatic (monetary) world surged into conflict with one another over their validity.  The icons involved in this fight reads like a “Who’s Who” of numismatics, from the multi-millionaire John J. Ford and highly regarded, Q. David Bowers, to Professor Ted Buttrey, who received the highest awards from both U.S. and England’s numismatic associations.  

4.  What stands out about the people who were involved?

Strong men and women owned or sought over time the Jonathan’s treasure, and their stories start one-hundred-and-fifty years ago when the ship was built.  These people showed their greed and egos—whether rich or poor, powerful or not—along with persistence, strength, and courage. 

I am amazed by the fortitude of the divers who plummeted to the bottom of the sea under uncertain conditions in their search for the missing gold.  Then there is the strength shown by a small band of people in their continuing to-the-death, “David versus Goliath” legal and financial struggle.  Whether in the undersea explorations or numismatic worlds, the successful and famous clashed time and again, whether internally or against others, over a vessel and its treasure that was part of our history.


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