Divers to try to retrieve bell from 1921 shipwreck

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — The bell of the SS Governor, which has been described as a “holy grail” of maritime artifacts, could be pulled out of the water this week if conditions allow.

“We are going to try to retrieve the bell on Thursday or Friday,” said Robert Wilson of Marysville, who, along with Benjamin Nussbaum of Lynnwood, discovered it buried in silt 240 feet below the Admiralty Inlet surface last year.

“It looks like we will complete our quest.”

Wilson is a diver and the spokesman for the Marine Documentation Society, which finances historical dives with the purpose of recovering important artifacts.

“One of the things you always look for is the ship’s bell,” he said.

“This is the holy grail of all shipwreck artifacts,” said Dan Warter, vice president of the Maritime Documentation Society and one of three partners in DCS Films.

After Wilson and a team of divers locates the bell, which had been put in a protected spot, a plastic inflatable will be attached.

Filled with air, the 15-to-20-pound bell will be lifted to the water’s surface.

Wilson describes the conditions at 240 feet down as having “a lot of wind.”

He said it is not an easy dive, as the divers spend at least two hours in 40-degree water.

The dive to the Governor is considered “the Mount Everest of diving,” Warter has said, because of the historic nature of the sunken ship and the hazardous conditions of the area.

Soon after the bell was found last summer — with Warter recording the discovery on video — he described the shipwreck as “the Titanic in our backyard and one of the most difficult dives in the world.”

The Governor, a steamship on a routine run to Seattle from San Francisco, sank at 12:04 a.m. Friday, April 1, 1921. Eight of the 240 people aboard did not survive.

The Governor had just dropped off some passengers in Victoria before heading southeast toward Puget Sound.

As the ship rounded Port Townsend, the SS West Hartland, which was leaving Port Townsend for India, rammed into the Governor amidships on her starboard side, ripping open a 10-foot gash in the iron hull.

Reports later said the Governor’s pilot mistook the West Hartland’s running lights for fixed lights on Marrowstone Point and so didn’t yield the right of way.

Maritime Documentation Society divers have examined the shipwreck at least annually for years but it was not until July, 2011 during Wilson’s 13th successful dive in 10 years that the bell was found.

Wilson said that an expert will be on hand on the surface to authenticate the bell and determine that it in fact came from the Governor’s wreckage,

“As soon as it comes out of the water, it is just scrap so we need to establish its validity,” Wilson said.

“We want to cross all the Ts and dot all the Is in making sure that it is the real thing.”

Wilson, 48, has been diving since he was a teenager and enjoys being able to interact with historical artifacts.

“There are sites where people can go dive among ships that have been put there for that purpose, that doesn’t interest me,” he said.

“To me the draw is the ability to reach out and touch these parts of history.”

Wilson, who has dived in places around the world, said the most exciting expedition was near Bikini Atoll where he saw the wreckage of the Japanese battleship Nagato, which was part of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

While Wilson is optimistic about recovering the bell, it is not a sure thing, he said.

If it is recovered, its fate remains undecided.

The salvage rights to the wreck are owned by Bob Mester and Mark Allen of Underwater Admiralty Sciences.

Wilson hopes the bell will be placed in a museum where it is viewable by the public, with a preference that it be somewhere in Port Townsend.

“I wouldn’t want to go through all this effort in order to see it land on someone’s mantle,” he said.

Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 08. 2012 6:02PM
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