Shipwreck expert seeks Leith steamer’s millions

Marine history expert Dr Lee Spence has high hopes for the SS Ozama find
Marine history expert Dr Lee Spence has high hopes for the SS Ozama find
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A VICTORIAN steamer built in Leith for little more than £13,000 is expected to deliver a multi-million payday for an underwater archaeologist and treasure hunter.

The wreck of SS Ozama has been discovered in 40 feet of water off the South Carolina coast, having only been identified this year after more than a century on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Now shipwreck expert Dr Lee Spence has set his sights on a salvage mission where the researcher is confident of finding stashes of gold worth millions given the fabled gunrunner’s history as a smuggling ship across the Americas.

Dr Spence said: “I believe she may have a considerable amount of gold on it and that’s what I’m hoping. And we’re going to be digging into her and hopefully raising a great deal of gold.

“The gold should not only be intact, it should still be shiny.”

The steamer, originally named the Craigallon, was built at Edinburgh’s northern docks in 1881 for Glasgow-based shipping company Walker Donald & Co.

It towed a dredge used in the construction of the Panama Canal from New York to Central America in 1884, but a year later was wrecked in the Bahamas.

The vessel was salvaged, towed to Norfolk, Virginia, and rebuilt. It was rechristened the Ozama and used for extensive gun and money smuggling to Haiti.

The vessel was believed to have been carrying funds in the form of gold to support regime change in Haiti when it ran aground at Cape Romain.

The collision left a hole in the engine room compartment. Water filled the fire rooms, destroying the engines and the vessel subsequently sank.

Treasures left on board the largely intact vessel may not be limited to just gold. The steamer had also been used to carry money to Haiti, including one known stash of $300,000 [£193,200].

And while the paper will clearly have been rendered useless immediately, Dr Spence is optimistic the Ozama’s hull holds a secret stash of bullion which could make him a very rich man.

He said: “Newspaper accounts said she was travelling in ballast, without cargo. This would have discouraged any attempts at salvage. Ships reporting themselves as travelling in ballast often carried money and even other cargo. When you are smuggling, the smuggled cargo often isn’t listed or is intentionally mis-listed.”

Dr Spence first located the previously unidentified ship while carrying out a magnetometer survey on other shipwrecks in 1979.

The treasure pundit will own anything he recovers, having successfully laid claim in the US federal court last year to any wrecks situated off Cape Romain.

He said that he is hopeful that whatever is on board the steamer is salvageable as the steamer is “in surprisingly good condition with most of the ship relatively intact and sitting upright”.