Sunken treasure lies hidden at the bottom of New York Harbor

Going through old links this morning, I found a story originally published in New York Magazine back in 2009 about the waters of New York City-a maritime metropolis that, many forget, is also an archipelago.

"What, exactly, is down there?" the magazine asked, looking out at the urban waters. "For starters, a 350-foot steamship, 1,600 bars of silver, a freight train, and four-foot-long cement-eating worms." There are also the now submerged ruins of "Coney Island's great early theme parks," discarded in the waters after the fun ran out.

Sunken treasure lies hidden at the bottom of New York HarborS

(Image: New York Harbor, mapped in 1957, courtesy of NOAA).

It's an incredibly interesting article, as it happens, but those silver bars might even inspire a few of you to change your life direction:

In 1903, a barge in the Arthur Kill-the oily, mucky arm of the harbor between Staten Island and New Jersey-capsized, spilling its cargo of silver ingots. It carried 7,678 bars; about 6,000 were recovered soon after. The rest are still down there. At today's prices, they're worth about $26 million. Every now and then, someone tries to find them. So far, no luck.

Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines, actually wrote a follow-up piece later in 2009 about a treasure-hunting scientist named Ken Hayes. ("I'm a scientist, not a treasure hunter," says Hayes. "Treasure hunting is just an interesting application of the technology we utilize in the other things.") As of 2009, Hayes was "working on his favorite-and potentially most profitable-project: finding the lost Guggenheim silver, valued at around $26 million."

The whole story is pure Hollywood:

On the boat's starboard side, shaded by the wheelhouse, Hayes produces a laminated photocopy of a New York Times article from October 17, 1903, which details the barge accident and recovery. It's effectively a treasure map in article form, Hayes contends, replete with apparent red herrings that he believes could yield important clues. Since first hearing about the silver in the mid-'80s, Hayes has studied the piece like the Rosetta Stone, identifying words whose meanings have altered and dissecting logic gaps and inconsistencies in police reports. He's plied local people for old rumors about the incident and tried to separate myth from historical fact. Tales abound of a local Native American man who resided in a nursing home with just one possession: an ingot of Guggenheim silver. Hayes never found him.

Here, below, is that 1903 article, if you're curious.

Sunken treasure lies hidden at the bottom of New York HarborS

(Image: From the New York Times, October 17, 1903).

In any case, New York Magazine also mentions a somewhat disconcerting detail in which we learn that the roof of the Lincoln Tunnel is actually being slowly eroded of its soil coverage by new river currents that were generated by the pilings of nearby Battery Park City. It's a case of urban hydrodynamics at work:

The Hudson's main current has, for all of recorded history, clung to lower Manhattan's edge, skimming along the West Side. Battery Park City, built in the seventies, juts out into that flow, and since then, the current has been cutting a new channel, out toward the center of the river. That current is scraping mud off the top of the Lincoln Tunnel where it never did before; the underwater traffic tubes have lost 25 percent of their soil coverage in some spots. If the tubes ever became exposed, they would be at risk for shifting, cracking, and terrorist threats.

Check out these and other sites in New York's aquatic geography in the original piece.

(Originally via Gideon Shapiro and, I believe, kottke.org).

Originally published by Geoff Manaugh as "Submarine City" on BLDGBLOG. Republished with permission.

Top Image: New York Harbor, mapped in 1966, courtesy of NOAA.