A shipwreck yields treasures for all to see

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The SS Republic is back in Baltimore after more than 150 years. But this time it's in pieces.

This massive steamship was built in Baltimore in 1853 as a passenger ship and also worked through the Civil War in blockades and gun battles. But on its final voyage in 1865 - delivering a fortune in gold and silver to New Orleans for rebuilding after the war - the ship sank in a terrible hurricane.

Most of the passengers and crew were rescued, but the Republic and her cargo sank to the sea floor 100 miles off the Georgia coast.

The ship sat there for nearly 140 years, until the remains were discovered by the shipwreck hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2003. More than 51,000 coins and 14,000 other artifacts were recovered. Now, the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore offers an exciting, interactive look at the ship, her eye-popping treasure, her frightening end and the huge effort it took to recover her bounty.

On a recent rainy morning, a group of second- and third-graders from the Al-Huda school in College Park were blown away by the exhibit - almost literally. The kids could not get enough of the hurricane tubes you can stand in to experience 80-mile-an-hour winds. The tubes offer a hint of what it must have felt like on board the Republic before it sank.

Ahmed Roach, 7, said the powerful wind "felt cold." Huzaifah Khan, also 7, said the wind tunnels made him realize he didn't want to be on a ship during a storm. "It would be scary," he said.

The kids also lined up to take turns operating a robotic arm, using only a video screen for guidance, to pick up coins and drop them in a bucket. That gave them an idea how hard it is to excavate a site that's so deep underwater, the collection work is done mostly by deep-sea robots.

It is estimated that about 3 million shipwrecks are littering the ocean floor, and with advanced technology, more of these wrecks are being found. The discoveries cost millions of dollars, but the payoff can be hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of treasure (although sometimes there are legal battles over who owns that treasure).

Odyssey, which found the Republic, treats its discoveries as archaeological digs and works with museums, such as the Maryland Science Center, to exhibit important pieces it has found. That includes parts of the ships themselves, as well as gorgeous glass bottles, impossibly unharmed china figurines and - of course - piles of silver and gold.

- Margaret Webb Pressler kidspost@washpost.com

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