Shortly after her departure from Auckland on a passage to Suva and Vancouver the steamer was sunk as the result of striking a mine early on the morning of 19 June 1940. There was no loss of life, her complement of 349 – 146 passengers and 203 members of the crew – embarking in 18 boats, and by nightfall all were safely back in Auckland.
Calm and comparatively clear conditions prevailed when the Niagara was steaming up the coast, and at 3.40am when the ship was in the fairway between Bream head and Mokohinau Island, a violent explosion occurred which shook the vessel from stem to stern. The hatch covers and stanchions on the forward hold were hurled into the air, and many people were thrown from their bunks. The hold filled so rapidly that it was at once apparent that the vessel had sustained serious damage. Within a few minutes distress signals were sent by radio and rocket flares fired. The order to abandon ship was given almost immediately, and by 4am, when the ship was settling by the head, the majority of the passengers and crew were in the boats. Water poured through gaping holes near the stricken steamer’s bows, and at 5.32am the Niagara sank in 70 fathoms of water. It was later learned that the mine was among 228 contact mines laid by the German commerce-raider Orion on the night of 13–14 June.
The Niagara, No. 135,193, was a steel, triple-screw steamer of 13,415 tons gross and 7582 tons net register, built at Clydebank, Scotland, in 1913 by J. Brown and Company. Length 524.7ft., beam 66.3ft., depth 34.5ft. Her engines were of 12,500hp indicated. She was owned by Canadian-Australasian Line Ltd., and was under the command of Captain W. Martin. The Niagara had accommodation for 590 passengers – 250 first class, 200 cabin class and 140 third class.
In the Niagara’s strongroom was a shipment of 295 boxes, each containing two ingots of gold, of an approximate value of £2,500,000, being shipped to the USA. The owners of gold, the Bank of England, entered into a contract with the United Salvage Proprietary Ltd., of Melbourne, for its recovery.
The salvage company, having acquired the old steamer Claymore, of 260 tons gross and 119 tons net register, built in 1902, established their headquarters at Whangarei, and commenced operations on 15 December 1940 under the directions of Captains J. Williams and J. Herd.
On 2 February 1941, the wreck of the Niagara was located in a reported 438 feet of water, which at the time was claimed to be the greatest depth at which salvage operations had ever been carried out.
Hampered by bad weather, and frequently menaced by mines which on two occasions nearly brought about the destruction of the Claymore and her complement of 18 persons, nearly nine months of arduous and dangerous work ensured, blasting and clearing away sufficient of the steamer’s structure, before access could be obtained to the strongroom, and it was not until 13 October that the first two bars of gold, each worth £4300, were recovered.
Two days later the Claymore steamed into Whangarei with gold to the value of £84,600 on board. When operations finally ceased on 8 December 1941, the day after Japan’s entry into the war, 277½ boxes (555 ingots) of gold had been recovered, the approximate value of which was £2,379,000, and represented 94 percent of the total. The operations were carried out using a diving bell in which divers J. Johnstone and his brother William made 316 descents during the salvage operations.
In 1953, a salvage operation by the British company Risdon Beazley was carried out using the same methods as the 1941 salvage and a further 30 bars of gold were recovered.
With the advent of new technology the sunken vessel was explored in the 1980s using Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) systems and the development of new technology enabled divers to visit the wreck for the first time in 1999.
The actual depth of the liner is 400 feet, shallower than the depth initially claimed and not a record salvage depth, as claimed in 1941. The liner is lying on her port side and the depth to the topside of the wreck is approximately 340 feet. The five remaining gold bars weigh a total of 2000 ounces and have increased in value with time.
A number of books have been written about the Niagara and the gold salvage ventures, the most recent being, Niagara’s Gold by Jeff Maynard and Deep Water Gold by Keith Gordon.
Text from New Zealand Shipwrecks, 8th edition (Hodder Moa, 2007). Used with permission of the publisher and authors.