Feature Article
Western & Eastern Treasures Magazine

The USS Charleston - Shipwreck With A Silver Lining
By David Finnern

Featured Online Article from
Vol. 31 April 1997

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There may be over one million coins within the wreckage of the Charleston. The coins are primarily one ounce, silver, eight reales minted in Mexico, with dates ranging from 1841-1898. (Photos by David Finnern)

Most treasure hunters realize that the "Big Ones" are always discovered after careful and methodical research. One simply never stumbles upon hundreds of thousands of century-old 8 reales coins... well, almost never.

"I first heard about the story in 1993," explained Steve Morgan, veteran treasure hunter and salvor. "It seems some local Filipino salvagers had discovered a 200-300 lb. piece of brass sticking out of the sand back in April 1993. They went out there with some primitive explosives and planted them to free the piece of brass from the bottom. When they came back to the site after the explosion to get the brass, the whole bottom was covered with coins."

An ocean bottom covered with coins is enough to pique the interest of any salvor, and Steve Morgan is no exception. He immediately began investigating the discovery, but local inhabitants could shed little light on the subject. While everyone knew the coins were coming from a large shipwreck, no one knew the ship's identity, what she was doing wrecked on a reef in the northern Philippines, or exactly how much treasure she was carrying.

While researching a treasure after its discovery is somewhat unusual. Morgan realized he was going to have to investigate the shipwreck through other sources, and by 1994 his archival research began to pay off with numerous facts. Ten days following the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine on February 15, 1898, the United States and Spain declared war on one another. By the following April, Commodore George Dewey, commanding the American Pacific Squadron, had been given orders to leave China and proceed to the Philippines to capture or destroy the Spanish Asian Fleet, which was at anchor in Manila Bay.

Dewey succeeded in destroying the fleet; however, he was soon faced with another problem: the Spanish Army remained stationed on land. He immediately sent cables to San Francisco and Washington requesting reinforcement ground troops, and troop ships were soon dispatched to the Asiatic theater. To ensure that Dewey's maritime accomplishments remained intact, the Navy also sent one of its newest cruisers to accompany them-the USS Charleston.

"After the Americans took over the Philippines from the Spanish," Morgan explained, "they were in a transitional period. At the time, the Filipinos thought that the American forces were removing the bondage of the people and they'd finally be free. However, the United States thought of the Philippines as spoils of war, not freeing a country from Spanish dominance. So, a large insurgency broke out against the Americans, actually killing more people than the Spanish-American War did.

"The insurgents were trying to force Americans out of the Philippines and would come into Manila and rob banks. They'd take the money and buy arms and supplies to further their cause. The U.S. saw the pattern, so orders were given to transfer all massive amounts of coins that belonged to the Philippine government to U.S. warships for safekeeping. There were several ships storing these coins, including the Charleston.

"The Charleston had been over there for about two years and was just finishing her tour of duty. She was doing patrol duty in the northern area of the Philippines, near Luzon. In the early morning hours of November 2, 1899, the ship hit a reef. They tried to back her off, but she was stuck tight. The weather was becoming really nasty because a typhoon was coming in. The waves were so large that the ship was being picked up and slammed against the reef.

"They had already lost one of their gigs and were short on boats, so the supplies they took off the ship were limited to the weapons they could carry. Despite the heavy sea, they made for a nearby island in the lifeboats. The closest land was about eight miles away, but the only landing site was on the other side of the island, through a full 28 miles of raging ocean.

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Ship diagram: The USS Charleston was the largest US Naval vessel of her day as well as the first Navy man-o-war powered exclusively by steam.

"But even after their landfall, they weren't out of harm's way yet. They didn't know what they were going to run into because of the insurgent activity. Fortunately, the local inhabitants were friendly towards the Americans and opened their homes. It's amazing there was no loss of life from the ordeal."

While the shipwrecked sailors were safe, they still had a way to go before they'd be rescued. They were stranded on the island of Luzon for ten days before a rescue vessel finally appeared. But due to the typhoon, the rescue ship could do nothing but steam offshore in an effort to avoid its own grounding. A month would pass before the stricken crew finally enjoyed the comfort and security of an American Ship. By the time word had come down through naval channels of the wreck, the Charleston had broken up completely and was deemed a total loss.

The wreck site lay forgotten and undisturbed for almost 100 years before its chance discovery. Then a gold rush, of sorts, began. Local divers succeeded in recovering much of the "easy to reach" treasure, but unfortunately many of the recovered coins were melted as scrap. An American company applied for and received salvage rights to the wreck, but due to alleged misconduct and false claims represented to investors, it lost its permit. The Filipino Navy then tried its hand at salvaging the ship, but due to its limited experience in treasure salvage and other pressing matters of national security, had little success.

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Steve Morgan displays a small portion of the coins recovered from the wreck of the Charleston. The coins were removed from a bank vault for the photo.

Morgan has been recently working with local divers and, in association with a Filipino salvage company, will soon begin a major salvage effort.

"The Filipino divers did a good job salvaging the shallow part of the wreck," Morgan stated. "They are probably some of the best divers in the world. But we really don't know for sure how many coins went down with the ship. They really didn't keep a good record of it. There have been hundreds of thousands recovered so far. A solid guess would be there are about a million coins left in the deeper portions of the wreck. The latest coin I've seen so far is 1898, and the earliest is 1841. They were minted in Mexico, and the majority of them are .907 silver 8 reales coins.

"But we have found a lot of other things you wouldn't think would be on a warship. The Charleston was getting ready to come back home when it was wrecked, and it was loaded to the gunwales with souvenirs and a variety of other items that the 300 crew members had purchased while on R & R in Hong Kong and other places. These include Ming Dynasty and other ancient artifacts."

The USS Charleston has numerous claims to fame. When she was built in 1888, she was the largest U.S. naval vessel of the day, as well as its first man-o-war powered exclusively by steam. But 100 years after her loss she may now claim a new title that her designers could never have imagined. The Charleston is indeed one of the most unusual treasure ships ever discovered.

Steve Morgan's company, the Charleston Recovery Project, is making some of the recovered coins available to the public. For example, an 1890s 8 reales coin, framed with a certificate of authenticity, is available for $125, including shipping & handling. Earlier coins are offered as well. Information may be obtained by writing to The Charleston Recovery Project, P.O. Box 9078-66, Van Nuys, CA 91409.

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