Interested in learning more about Endurance Exploration Group’s expedition to the steamship Connaught? Check out our Q&A below!
What’s the story of the steamship Connaught? What is the history and how did she become a shipwreck?
Launched in 1860, the Connaught was a steam‐powered packet ship, part of a fast and indispensable transatlantic mail and passenger link between Britain and the United States. Large for her time, she was a side‐wheel steamer constructed almost entirely of iron.
On her last voyage, the Connaught left Great Britain, bound for Boston. She carried several dozen first-class passengers, more than four hundred steerage passengers and a full crew of nearly 130. The Connaught also disembarked with a cargo of gold coins, and the Captain assumed a short, uneventful voyage to Boston.
When heavy seas set in, the Connaught began to roll heavily. Though the initial problem was temporarily fixed, twelve hours later the same roll started again. Making matters worse, fire broke out. Buckets and pumps were manned, but the water rose rapidly and extinguished the furnaces, rendering the ship immobile. The fire quickly spread, driving the passengers above decks.
The purser and two men attempted to rescue the gold shipment, but were driven back by the smoke and flames. A nearby ship came to the rescue, bravely maneuvering close to the Connaught and running a line between the two to facilitate transfer of passenger. Per age‐old protocol, the Captain was the last man off the ship.
Why do some call the story of the steamship Connaught the greatest rescue in maritime history?
The crew and passengers of the Connaught were in terrible danger. Thrashed by waves and driven above decks by fire, prospects for survival grew grimmer by the minute. During this time period, there were few evacuation safety procedures, and it was unlikely there were enough lifeboats for everyone. Even those who could have escaped by lifeboat may have only prolonged the inevitable—with no radio to signal distress or coordinate a rescue, they would either need to find a way to sail for shore, or wait for fate to bring them a passing ship.
Captain Wilson of the tiny ship Minnie Schiffer took his first huge risk steering his ship to the Connaught. Seeing the burning liner, he could have just as easily continued on his course. One stray ember could have ignited his sails, consuming his ship as well. And at just 300 tons, his ship was less than a tenth of the size of the 4,400 ton Connaught—taking on more than 500 passengers and crew. By the time the rescue was complete, there was standing room only aboard the tiny rescue ship, and some survivors had even taken to the rigging—but every man, woman and child had survived.
Many of the immigrants found loved ones at the wharf, husbands reunited with wives, relatives found each other, and families once more became whole. But others found out those they were to meet had died, and they had arrived both penniless and friendless. Charitable organizations stepped in to meet this need. The Merchant’s Exchange Reading Room disseminated the news across the wire and packet services, newspapers picked up the story as front-page news internationally.
Though Captain Leitch of the Connaught was commended for his behavior, the true hero of the event was Captain John Wilson of the Minnie Schiffer. His rescue lost not a single life, and crowded more than five hundred people onto a ship of only 108 feet in length with a 25-foot beam.
John Wilson called New Orleans home. He was known as a kind and unselfish man. With no children of his own, he and his wife had adopted and raised several orphans. Both he and his crew were awarded accolades, money, and prizes for their gallant actions. The Captain was to be awarded some $3,000 from the insurance agencies. However, the Civil War broke out soon after, and Captain Wilson joined the southern cause. The money was withheld, and never delivered after the war. By 1870, John Wilson was ill, unable to work, and reduced in circumstances. Some publicly pressed for his recognition, and for the delivery of his award money. It is not known if the money was ever awarded.
The Connaught rescue now stands as an incredible example of the power of leadership and heroism, and is believed by many to be the greatest rescue in maritime history.
How much Project Connaught work has been completed to date? Have you made any recoveries?
Following extensive archival research efforts, Endurance conducted a sonar survey of over 700 square miles off the coast of Boston in 2013, mapping a total of twenty‐five potential shipwreck targets for further evaluation, including the sonar target believed to be the wreckage of the steamship Connaught. In summer 2014, we returned with a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) and successfully identified the wreckage of the steamship Connaught. During this expedition, we also recovered a token amount of ships’ wreckage in order to aid our legal arrest proceedings.
We are currently scheduled to the site during summer 2015 to complete survey operations and recover the Connaught’s gold cargo.
What do salvage operations entail?
Upon returning for our Summer 2015 expedition, we will begin by examining the Connaught, her debris field and other associated and non-associated features, objects and debris with high-resolution sidescan sonar.
Next, we will set up our anchor system so that we can remain “on station” during operations. We’ll begin by securing the site, removing “ghost nets,” lines and any other modern intrusion. This will ready the site for capturing the complete shipwreck and debris field survey using video and still imagery.
Finally, recovery operations will begin in earnest. This means making our way through the shipwreck itself, carefully excavating sediment and other overburden until we reach the cargo. We intend to recover coins and other important artifacts, recording video and capturing still imagery at every step.
What does the wreck site look like?
After one and a half centuries on the ocean floor, the Connaught has somewhat flattened out with the exception of her machinery. Large timbers and heavy iron sections are typically among the last features to disintegrate. Though there is unlikely to be much superstructure remaining, parts of the hull flush against the seabed are offered some protection from the elements and may be relatively well preserved. We will also see a significant amount of coal on the bottom, though far less than she was loaded with. Her capacity was 1200 tons, but she sank with far less.
Iron shipwrecks are characterized by disintegration and massive “rusticles”, rust structures similar to stalactites formed by the iron oxidation process. The remaining iron is likely to be extremely weak and brittle.
Though the Connaught was built of iron, her upper works, including decking and fixtures, would have most likely been constructed largely or entirely from wood. At the time of her sinking, there is evidence that these upper works may have been structurally compromised, as evidenced by trunks, light cargo and other pieces of her upper works coming free and floating away. Much of her listed cargo consisted of textiles and other degradable materials. However, many of her bottles survived the sinking, some still holding their contents. Unfortunately, deep sea trawling nets have a significant impact on wrecks. Fishing activity may have expanded the debris field, as well as torn away lighter artifacts and weaker structural elements.
We may see surviving signs of fire. This may include singed wood and cargo, the melting or destruction of artifacts with low resistance to heat, warped or buckled metalwork.
As she sank by the stern, she may have also impacted by the stern, shifting machinery, coal reserves, loose cargo towards the rear. Though contemporary accounts have the Connaught sinking without breaking up, sonar imagery appears to show a detached bow section.
Where is the shipwreck?
The steamship Connaught is located some distance east of Boston, outside state and territorial waters.
How long will Endurance remain at the shipwreck site?
We may remain at the site for up to three months, we believe this is more than enough time to accomplish all primary data collection and recovery objectives. We may end operations earlier should we complete work ahead of schedule.
How can you tell if you found the right ship?
The steamship Connaught was successfully identified based on her unique construction characteristics, including site footprint size, key ‘landmarks’ such as portal design and placement, date estimations of artifacts captured on still and video camera. This, combined with her unusual and highly unique paddlewheel design, confirmed her identity beyond all reasonable doubt.
What valuable cargo do you expect to find aboard the Connaught?
The £10,000 in gold coins is a confirmed cargo, as it is explicitly stated across multiple sources within the historical records. We believe it remains within the shipwreck, as it is also recorded that two men and the purser attempted to save the coins, but were driven back by smoke and flames. Further, the purser himself jumped into the sea to save a woman, making it unlikely that he’d personally recovered any of the gold cargo.
Firsthand accounts of the sinking indicate that the first-class passengers had stores of money aboard, and their money and valuables were lost with the sinking. Unfortunately, there have been no records located in reference to the amount, form, denomination, owner, or current-day values. However, Endurance Exploration Group has both the ability and the intention to seek these additional stores.
When will you make announcements?
As a publicly-traded company (OTCQB:EXPL), we are obligated to provide timely notification of all material events, including any discoveries. You can follow along with our announcements on this website, our Facebook page or through our SEC filings are available at the following link: http://www.sec.gov/cgi-bin/browse-edgar?company=endurance+exploration+group&owner=exclude&action=getcompany
What is the legal status of the wreck?
The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida has granted Endurance Exploration Group the exclusive right to salvage the wreck site of the Connaught. Upon recovery of the items of cargo, Endurance Exploration Group, as substitute custodian (in lieu of the United States Marshal’s Office) and will conserve and preserve the finds in a secured location in preparation for sale.
What will happen to the shipwreck after you leave?
Endurance Exploration Group will maintain legal custody of the shipwreck Connaught as long as possible and reserve the right to return to the shipwreck site. It is important to note that the marine environment can be very tough on shipwrecks. Not only will she continue to loose large portions of her iron construction to rust, passing trawl nets will likely continue to snare the wreck, pulling apart major features, spreading the debris field and destroying artifacts. In situ preservation for shipwrecks is a controversial topic, but we’ve seen firsthand what both nature and man can do—that’s why we feel an obligation to record as much data and recover historically important artifacts from this wreck before it’s lost forever.
Are there any human remains at the site?
Absolutely not! Historical records show that everyone made if off the Connaught prior to her sinking. However, it is Endurance’s policy to treat all human remains with the utmost care and dignity under international best practices.