New home sought for bell of 90-year-old shipwreck
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Maritime Documentation Society
The bell of the shipwreck SS Governor is shown 240 feet below the surface of Admiralty Inlet.

By Leah Leach
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — The bell of the SS Governor remains 240 feet below the surface of Admiralty Inlet where it sank 90 years ago, while discussions are held on the artifact's future home.

Divers with the Marine Documentation Society visited the historic shipwreck last month but left the bell where it was off Point Wilson because they lacked an expert to authenticate the bell and document that it in fact came from the Governor's wreckage.

“We didn't get the people in place to authenticate it, so our best course of action is to leave it in place,” said Rob Wilson of Marysville, who — along with Benjamin Nussbaum of Lynnwood — discovered the bell buried in silt last July.

Authentication is essential because, without it, “as soon as it comes out of the water, it is just scrap,” Wilson has said.

The bell will stay with the shipwreck probably “for another year or so or until we get a decent tide,” said Wilson, spokesman for the Marine Documentation Society, which finances historical dives with the purpose of recovering important artifacts.

The shipwreck is in a tricky spot, and divers rarely can safely access it, he said.

“You only get three or four shots at it a year,” Wilson said.

The delay may give those who manage the salvage rights of the 1921 shipwreck the opportunity to find the relic a home.

“There hasn't been a final determination” about what to do with the foot-tall bell — estimated to weigh 15 to 20 pounds and to be 18 inches across at the base — once it is lifted to the surface, said Bob Mester, director of Underwater Admiralty Sciences of Kirkland.

His company manages the salvage rights for a limited-liability company that owns them and that does not want to be identified, Mester said.

He said there have been a lot of suggestions about what should be done with the bell.

“One was to make castings and offer them to people who would like to buy a replica,” he said.

The final home of the bell ideally would be in a local museum, he said, or at least one on the Governor's West Coast route from San Pedro, Calif., to Victoria, B.C., and Vancouver and Seattle.

“I think it should stay locally,” Mester said.

“We are working on some things right now,” he added.

“We have definitely talked to museums.”

Curation is expensive, he said.

“We're looking at tens of thousands of dollars,” Mester said.

“I would entertain any reasonable and qualified museum in the local area that has an interest and the financial ability to restore the bell for exhibition,” he added.

A ship's bell is “the holy grail of all shipwreck artifacts,” Dan Warter, vice president of the Maritime Documentation Society, has said.

And Underwater Admiralty Sciences is treating it as an important historical artifact — even though “it's not an historically significant shipwreck,” Mester said.

“It did not fit the criteria,” and so “it's not designated or under the protection of Washington state” or the federal government “as an historical site.

“We're doing the same things as if it were,”Mester said.

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

The ship had just dropped off some passengers in Victoria before heading southeast toward Puget Sound and was rounding Port Townsend when the SS West Hartland, which was leaving Port Townsend for India, rammed into it amidships on the starboard side and ripped 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 had examined the shipwreck — described by Warter as “basically the Titanic in our backyard” 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.

The dive to the Governor is considered “the Mount Everest of diving . . . one of the most difficult dives in the world,” Warter has said.

Visibility is low, and currents come from four directions.

But conditions below the surface of the sea during the dives last month were calmer than on the surface.

Divers made two expeditions to the wreck July 12-13, when a series of thunderstorms was booming across the North Olympic Peninsula, “but we had it surprisingly easy underneath the water,” Wilson said.

“We had great dives.

“It would have been a fairly easy task” to bring the bell from the water, but without documentation, there was no point, he said.

“It's been down there since 1921,” he said.

“Leaving it down there longer won't hurt it.”

Museums interested in talking with Mester about acquiring the Governor's bell can contact him at 253-370-6980.

Managing Editor/News Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3531 or at

Last modified: August 01. 2012 5:58PM
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