150-year-old shipwreck intrigues salvage enthusiasts

One of the paddlewheels of the steamer Champion, which went down off New Jersey in 1859, is similar to what is foundthe wreck site of the Ella Warley off Belmar.
One of the paddlewheels of the steamer Champion, which went down off New Jersey in 1859, is similar to what is foundthe wreck site of the Ella Warley off Belmar. (HARRY ROECKER)
Posted: April 29, 2013

The crews of the ships saw one another steaming along the New Jersey coastline - and should have easily avoided the collision on that cold, clear night in February 1863.

But as the Ella Warley sailed south, with 30 passengers and a cargo worth $175,000, including gold, it was struck on the starboard side, near the wheelhouse, and began taking on water.

The North Star, a U.S. transport, smashed through the side-wheeler's stateroom and engine room and heavily damaged a boiler, which spewed steam while the crew and passengers fled in lifeboats.

Within 20 minutes, the Warley disappeared in about 60 feet of water five miles off Belmar, Monmouth County. Six crew members were lost along with the gold, believed to now be worth more than $1 million.

One of 7,000 vessels that have sunk off New Jersey's coast, the Warley will be the focus of a shipwreck symposium from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday at the InfoAge Science History Learning Center and Museum in Wall Township, Monmouth County.

The wreck of the Warley has been claimed by a Florida diver who hopes to salvage it. An "admiralty arrest," filed in federal court, gives him exclusive rights to the watery bounty.

"Divers have been recovering all sorts of riches for years," said Dan Lieb, museum director and president of the New Jersey Historical Divers Association. "It's not like they've found great troves on the seafloor, but they have brought up some valuable items from time to time."

Emerald world

What's left of the Warley - mainly rusty wreckage of the paddle wheel assembly - is protruding from the sandy bottom, in an emerald world of algae and sea life. The parts are encrusted, with barnacles, mussels, and sea anemones like underwater dandelions.

Nearby is the overturned wooden hull of a vessel sheathed in copper, which may be connected to the Warley or another ship, said Lieb.

Part of the steamer may have been salvaged, or its hull or paddle-wheel assembly may have been moved by a fishing net or storm, he said. It could have also been exploded by the Navy during World War as a possible enemy submarine. The site is now protected under maritime law.

Seizing items

"The admiralty arrest is a tool that divers can use," Lieb said. "Salvors use it all the time to seize items.

"They can ask owners to pay the fair market value for salvage if they want the items back," he said. "If they don't, the salvors keep it."

The arrest "protects divers and still allows exploration," said maritime lawyer and explorer David Concannon, who will speak at the symposium and has worked on historic wrecks including the Titanic, Bismarck, and Andrea Doria. "If you are protecting a massive investment, this is cheap insurance."

Some gold coins have been recovered from the Warley site on previous dives and others are likely buried in the sand, which would have to be blown away by underwater equipment, said Lieb, of Neptune, N.J.

Earlier, Allan Gardner, the Florida diver who arrested the wreck, found a spoon, imprinted with part of a name, "ley" - the last three letters of the Warley's name, said Gary Gentile, diver, explorer, and author of dozens of books on shipwrecks.

"It's a fascinating and historic wreck," said Gentile, a Jim Thorpe, Pa., resident who wrote about the steamer in his book Shipwrecks of New Jersey: North and is one of the symposium speakers.

Later, Gardner found the handle of a knife inscribed with the ship's full name, said the diver's wife, Christine, who last week was with him in the Bahamas. Allan Gardner, who was unavailable, and his wife lived in Eatontown, Monmouth County, before moving to Florida.

"The fishermen knew the ship as the Belmar steamer but nobody knew the name" until the spoon, knife, and other research confirmed that it was the Warley, said Christine Gardner. "This summer, my husband plans to be out [on the wreck] every day with metal-detecting equipment, weather permitting.

"He's not doing this for the gold coins," she said. "He's doing it for the history and discovery."

Fully laden

The 1,115-ton Warley was formerly known as the Isabel and was laden with arms, ammunition, and other supplies for the Confederacy when it was captured in 1862 during the Civil War by a U.S. gunboat. At the time of its sinking, the ship was owned by F.W. Reynolds & Co. of Providence, R.I., and bound for New Orleans, which had been captured by Union forces.

"She has been one of the most successful of the Rebel steamers in carrying on trade between Charleston, Havana, and Nassau," said a May 5, 1862, article in The Inquirer reporting the seizure.

The collision came the following Feb. 9 with the sound of cracking wood timbers, grinding metal, and whooshing steam. The crews of the ships altered their courses but each misjudged the intentions of the other in the final minutes.

The North Star struck the Warley's starboard side "at right angles, cutting us half through and carrying away our starboard boiler and steam pipe . . .," said Warley Capt. George Schenck, according to a report Gentile uncovered.


The North Star was seriously damaged and limped back to port for repairs.

"Several females . . . came on board the North Star in their night clothing, all of them, as may naturally be supposed, in the greatest state of fright and consternation," said a man named McHenry, the ship's acting purser, according to the Feb. 11, 1863, New York Times.

The Warley is one of thousands of such vessels, including ocean liners and freighters that carried valuable cargoes when they went down, Lieb said. The wooden steamer Delaware caught fire in 1898 and burned to the water line off Barnegat.

Indian pennies

Rumors of a gold shipment on the steamer Delaware spread but "to the best of my knowledge, nothing like that has ever been found at the wreck site," Lieb said.

"One diver did recover a jar full of Indian head pennies, and a gold watch was recovered from the wreckage in the 1960s by a local diver," he said.

Another ship, the steamer Viscaya, collided with the Cornelius Hargraves on Oct. 30, 1890. Scores of people drowned in the sinking of both vessels. Some of the personal effects, including jewelry, have been recovered by divers and displayed at the museum.

"Every diver dreams of finding sunken treasure," Lieb said. "Perhaps Mr. Gardner's dream will come true as he salvages the Warley."

Contact Edward Colimore

at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

For more information,

contact the New Jersey Historical Divers Association

at 732-776-6261 or njhda@ aol.com. Admission is $20.


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