New York: Lost Gold

Ch. 8: New York: Lost Gold
New York City, New York

Our Story:

Patrick Swan, a seasoned Revolutionary-era seaman hoping to better the lot of his family, reluctantly accepts a commission to guide a British vessel loaded with mysterious cargo through the treacherous waters of Hell’s Gate to Brooklyn. When disaster strikes, Swan is no closer to financial security, and he’s overwhelmed by guilt to boot.  Then it occurs to him that his knowledge of that notorious ship might be put to good use after all…

The Real Story Behind the Lost Gold in New York

In 1780, British authorities in New York City found themselves threatened by a new coalition of French and Revolutionary forces, and they apparently decided to move their payroll to a safer location either on the eastern end of Long Island or further north, on Rhode Island. The HMS Hussar, a 28-gun Sixth-Rate dispatch ship, was likely chosen to carry out this task. For some unknown reason, and against the advice of his pilot, Captain Charles Pole decided to take the most direct route through the section of the upper East River whose notoriously treacherous obstacles had earned it the name Hell Gate. Pole’s fateful decision resulted in disaster when the Hussar hit Pot Rock in the middle of the afternoon; the crew tried to run her aground, but the rapidly-moving current swept her north, toward Long Island Sound, as she sank. By early evening, she was gone.

Contemporary accounts of the sinking are contradictory and confusing; it is unclear how many lives were lost, but several sources claimed that 70 American prisoners in irons were unable to escape, and an 1856 expedition allegedly found bones that might corroborate this claim. Captain Pole himself was cleared of any wrongdoing and soon took command of another ship. The British made several attempts to quell the rumors that the ship was carrying gold: the first mate of the Hussar testified that the payroll funds had been offloaded before the sinking, and further denials were issued as late as the War of 1812. But the fact that the British made at least three salvage attempts, most notably using early diving technology in 1794, has fueled speculation about their motives for more than two centuries.

 No recovery attempt has met with clear success; only the 1856 expedition was said to have brought up a little gold. By the early 20th century, no-one could even be certain of the ship’s exact location: the closest shorelines have shifted over the years, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers detonated 25 tons of dynamite on the river bottom in 1876 to make Hell Gate more navigable. Moreover, diving in the active urban waterways of New York is virtually impossible. From time to time, treasure-seekers will come up with small finds, like bits of pottery, that might date from the correct period — but unfortunately, Hell Gate claimed many ships in that era, so divers will have to come up with much more than a few potsherds in order to prove that they have found the Hussar in particular.

 If the British authorities did in fact lie about the Hussar’s cargo in order to prevent others from recovering it, a very large sum of money in the form of gold sovereigns might have gone down with the ship — but nobody knows exactly how much, because historical sources vary widely in their estimate of the payroll amount. Even the possibility of finding gold worth perhaps as much as $1 billion in today’s market has been enough to entice several generations of shipwreck hunters, but it has eluded even the most seasoned professionals among them.

The Chapters: 12 Lost Treasures

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