Saturday, September 22, 2012, 10:06 AM
Sunken treasure off N.J.’s coast?
Florida diver lays claim to ship wreck site
Stephen Stirling/The Star-Ledger
ASBURY PARK — It was buried among the legal ads in a local newspaper this week, nary two paragraphs long amid public notices from municipalities and legal name changes.
It was a federal court announcement, but no ordinary one, from a treasure hunter announcing to “modern day pirates” that he was laying claim to a previously undiscovered Civil War-era shipwreck buried off the coast of Asbury Park — the maritime equivalent of a wedding officiant asking “if anyone has reason for these two not to be wed, speak now or forever hold your peace.”
The “groom” is Allan Gardner, a Florida diver who is seeking to salvage the ship. His bride-to-be, he hopes, is the Ella Warley, a 19th century steamship that sank into the murky waters off New Jersey nearly 150 years ago, taking with it the lives of six crewman.
“We’re looking for sunken treasure,” said Jerome A. Ballaratto, an attorney representing Gardner’s company, Endeavor Associates.
“We found the ship and we suspect that there’s treasure in it, and we’re hoping to find it.”
Gardner’s company has asked the courts to recognize him as the sole owner of anything he unearths at the wreck site, a little-known niche of maritime law that would permit the arrest of anyone else who tries to poach his watery bounty. “With today’s technology, once you’ve located (a wreck). unless you put something on it twenty-four-seven, you can’t protect it,” said David Paul Horan, another attorney representing Gardner and one of the most prolific authorities on litigation involving salvage operations. “It protects the site. So if a modern day pirate shows up and you say I have court protection of this site and show them your paperwork, a federal Marshall boards his ship, says come with me and that’s that.”
Anyone who feels they have a legal claim to the Ella Warley or its contents, be they a family member of a crewman or an insurance company that covered the ship, has until Thursday to notify the U.S. District Court in Newark. If not, it’s all Gardner’s.
Based on historical records, that could mean a big pay day.
By all accounts, it was a clear winter night on Feb. 9, 1863, when the Ella Warley was steaming south near the New Jersey coastline, the lights from the shore in full view from the ship’s deck.
The ship had recently been captured by Union forces during the Civil War, after acting as a blockade runner for the Confederacy for several years, and was headed for New Orleans with 30 passengers and cargo.
Lights from another ship, the S.S. North Star headed toward New York, were spotted by the Ella Warley’s crew, at this point miles away, according to newspaper articles and court records. The two ships altered their course, but incorrectly, putting them, unknowingly, on a collision course.
Officers of the Ella Warley, told the New York Herald what happened next: “Mr. O’Grady, the ship’s steward, was in his room at the time. When the noise on deck was heard Mr. O’Grady rushed out, and when he saw the North Star coming called to the chief engineer, who sprang on deck,” the article said. “As he did so the collision occurred and the North Star’s stern passed directly into his stateroom, crushing it to pieces.”
Both ships suffered heavy damage, but the North Star was able to make it safely to shore with many of the passengers and crew of the Ella Warley on board. Six men on the Ella Warley were killed, and the ship sank in just 20 minutes, its full cargo still on board.
According to newspaper articles published in the following days, the cargo was worth $175,000 and included jewelry, a safe containing $5,000 and at least $8,000 in gold coins — all of which has laid untouched and buried on the ocean floor ever since.
Until Gardner came along. Gardner could not be reached for comment. Dan Lieb, president of the New Jersey Historical Divers’ Association, has dived at the wreck site which, he said, Gardner and another diver discovered more than 20 years ago.
“I know for years they were very interested in it,” Lieb said, adding the wreck site no longer resembled a ship. “I dived it years ago. It was widely scattered wreckage. The only thing I was able to find to mark it as a dive site was the machinery that propelled the vessel. It was unmistakably that of a side-wheel (steamboat), which the Ella Warley was.”
Horan said Gardner has already unearthed several artifacts from the wreck site, including a gold coin, and through meticulous research has virtually proven he has found the Ella Warley.
“With this one, there’s going to be a lot of artifacts as well as some coins. This is the kind of stuff you’d find in museums,” Horan, who is based in Florida, said. “I’ve already told him to get things sorted up there because I’m going to jump in a plane, get up there and go dive with him.”
Ballaratto said Gardner hopes to conduct a more substantial salvage operation in the spring, assuming the court filing goes smoothly. Poachers of wreck sites have become increasingly common as technology has improved, Horan said, so planting a legal flag on your find has become crucial.
That’s especially true when the cargo could be worth several times what it was 150 years ago, but Ballaratto wouldn’t comment on what they had found thus far, saying only they were “very enthusiastic” about it.
Lieb said he had a pretty good idea.
“I know they found gold down there years ago and there were always rumors that there was more,” he said. “They probably found what they were looking for.”