Niagara – the Mine and the Gold

Reminiscence by Donald Lang

I think I knew the name RMS Niagara before she went out of circulation. June 19th 1940, just before the winter solstice, was a day that I remember as clear and sparkling. Don’t ask me about the weather on any other day in 1940. At the other end of the world the then current Republic of France was dying. Until I looked up the dates recently I did not connect the two. I don’t know how we found out that the ship was sinking just a little out of our view. I am sure that in wartime someone would have tried to keep the whole thing secret.  Less than six hours after the event it was being discussed on our school bus. Before we got to school the whole coastline must have known that there had been an explosion and the ship was sinking, or had sunk. Speculation had wings. I remember quoting my older brother to two teachers. “He says it is Von Luckner again.” The almost legendary WWI sailor had visited NZ several years earlier. Hector must have started reading and connecting ideas from newspapers that early. The teachers would not buy the idea.

By nightfall I think the first supply of secrecy had mostly vanished. Boats sent to collect survivors were no longer congregated as a tempting target for somebody. The story took a while to emerge but a German vessel named Orion had laid a string of mines in and across the main shipping lane(s) out of Auckland via the Hauraki Gulf. There is a chart they recorded with an irregular string of mines marked at one end by the northern tip of the “Great Barrier Island”. This Island continues the general line of the Coromandel Peninsular on one side of the Hauraki Gulf. At the other end of the string of mines many were laid where the Orion must have been within sight of  Bream Head , the northern end of Bream Bay. The Niagara hit one of these in the early hours of the day, and settled in calm seas. By the end of the day her depth under the ocean was about twice the height of Niagara Falls. All the passengers and crew were taken off safely, although the cat was missing for some days before it drifted ashore on some wreckage. There was considerable ‘human interest’ publicity about someone who was migrating on her honeymoon and how she had lost her trousseau.

At the time I was listed in adult terms as belonging to the tribe of the ‘little pigs with long ears’. I have the impression that nobody on the coast was supposed to know, as everybody apparently did, that a considerable amount of gold had been, and stayed, in the strongroom as the ship sank. Considerably later that year a local who had come to shear sheep for us assured us that the ship had been located and the gold would all be recovered in the next few weeks. “They have the wreck marked by a buoy. You can see it near Sail Rock”.

We had seen the buoy through binoculars from our location close to Bream Tail, which makes the  southern end of Bream Bay, but we did not believe the story. On our horizon Bream Bay, named by Captain Cook, was enclosed by Islands also named by Captain Cook. A largish island was the Hen and scattered a bit north of it were the Chickens. On the other side of the Hen Captain Cook may have seen an isolated dissident and rocky Chicken. From some angles it looks like a spinnaker on a modern yacht. Locals see it as Sail Rock. Perspectives do change. I am almost used to the name Taranga for the Hen. In my older view it is neither. It looks, in a view that I saw most days for more than a decade, like a Jurassic dragon of some sort stretched flat with its head toward the main Chickens and tail curving away from Sail Rock.

It is a matter of history that the wreck was located early the following year. Well away from the event the chart on the Orion was marked with a wreck site. That was hidden from us by the Chickens. Several nautical miles away, but still I think on the mine string, is the position now quoted for the wreck. That site is hidden from our vantage point by The Hen/Taranga. Further along much the same line was the buoy ‘near’ Sail Rock. I think that was a simple mistake.

Recovery of the gold followed in spasms. The technology of the time allowed an interesting feedback loop. There was a diver in a sealed observation chamber with a window to view the action. He was suspended from a crane on the deck of the aged coastal vessel Claymore. He directed by telephone what was done from the deck above by instruments suspended on a second cable. He had no mechanical linkage. He even had to be winched away from the action before explosives could be used in the process of breaking into the strongroom. There was likewise a distinct risk that explosive in the wrong place could disperse the contents as they were liberated. The reader can imagine doing all remote handling operations, sight unseen, from the deck above, as directed by telephone. The operations performed on the ship would then produce results over a hundred metres below. Delicate operations to retrieve gold bars involved mechanical grabs. Once again it is left to the reader to decide what to do when there is a swell travelling over the ocean. It is tempting to imagine a winch which pays out or hauls in the suspension line so that the load at the bottom stays at a constant depth below mean sea level. It is even easier to imagine the difficulties of control without your lap top. There should be admiration and possibly surprise that the first sequence of operations recovered a considerable majority of the gold bars that were the object of the exercise. Equally unsurprising will be the considerable number left behind at that time.

By the end of WWII equipment and control methods had improved enormously. The missing minority has now shrunk to five gold bars out of the original XXX.

There were other repercussions. They can wait for another story.

Wreck site 35 deg 53’ S : 174 deg 54’E

Taranga     35        58       174        43

B. Head     35        51       174        35

B. Tail       36        03        174        35

From Orion chart with German “marking of results” wreck site appears to be

~ 35 deg 49’ S and 174 deg 50 E. Both possible sites appear to lie on the charted ‘string’ of mines.

& from “Topix…”

map  1 : 10^5 @ 36d S                                               10’ E  ~  15km           

Langs Beach (middle?)           175d32’ E,      36d02’35” S                (+25”N?)

Busby Head                            174d32’ E,      35d51’40” S    20.5 km

Lady Alice (chick)                  174d44’ E,      35d51’30” S    24.5 km

Hen Pinnacles                         174d42’30” E  35d58’ S          18.2 km

Sail Rock                                174d42’ E,      36d0’5”  S       15.5 km

Bream Tail                              174d35’ E,      36d2’30” S    ~ 5  km Bream Tail to Sail Rock                                                       ~ 11 km

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