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Finders Keepers

Somewhere beneath the murky waters dividing Staten Island and New Jersey, there's a missing cache of $26 million in silver bars, and Ken Hayes thinks he knows where. Now, if he can just find it before someone else does...

Author Grant Stoddard Photography Stefan Killen

IN THE DISTANCE, HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS SKYLINE EMERGE: the Empire State Building, the twinkling spire of the Chrysler Building. Factories and warehouses line the shore, and dozens of rusting, crumbling hulks of scuttled and abandoned ships sit in the tidal mud near the riverbanks.

It’s the mud that interests Ken Hayes. More specifically, what lies beneath the mud. Tall and lanky, with a graying beard and an easy laugh, Hayes is a 56-year-old scientist who specializes in finding things underwater. His Jersey-based company, Aqua Survey, Inc., usually spends its days engaged in pretty mundane stuff: dredging, marine construction, soil and sediment toxicology, and locating the surprisingly prodigious amount of unexploded ordnance lurking in the waters around the United States. But today, Hayes is working on his favorite— and potentially most profitable—project: finding the lost Guggenheim silver, valued at around $26 million.

Standing on the deck of his 72-foot research craft, the Robert E. Hayes (named after his father), which looks more like a miniature oil rig than a seagoing vessel, Hayes is feeling optimistic. Three 80-foot-tall iron legs pierce the boat’s flat deck; at Hayes’ command, one of the crewmen pushes a series of levers, and the legs lower onto the river bottom 25 feet below. A minute later, the hull is lifted out of the water, transforming the vessel into a stable platform. Workers busily prepare the sled—a custom-made, high-tech metal detector about the size of two picnic tables—to be lowered in the water. One of Aqua Survey’s smaller boats, the Delaware, will drag it across the river bottom as it scans the muck.

So how did this silver trove end up in Arthur Kill? The trail starts in Manhattan, not far from the Chrysler Building. Before the silver hit the river bottom, it belonged to a wealthy mining baron named Meyer Guggenheim, whose son Solomon was a philanthropist and an art collector. Solomon commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build the famous Fifth Avenue museum bearing the family name in part with the fortune Meyer amassed from mining and smelting metals. An accident that befell the famous family business 106 years ago is the reason this trash-strewn shipping channel is buzzing with activity.

Here’s what Hayes knows: At 2 a.m. on September 27, 1903, a tugboat called Ganoga departed a pier in the East River towing a chain of 14 river barges to a smelting plant 15 miles away in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. However, a drunken tug crew—“the dumbest skunks I ever had do with,” reported one sailor—lashed the barges together sloppily. At some point after the convoy passed the Statue of Liberty and entered the Arthur Kill, the last one in line started listing to starboard, and the silver bars slowly fell overboard, one at a time. By the time the convoy reached Perth Amboy, 7,000 “pigs” were gone.

Most of this precious load was recovered in the days immediately following the expensive mishap, but the rest is still down there, somewhere. Now, Hayes feels he is tantalizingly close to finding what dozens of prospectors since could not.

“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.”

But it’s finding lost treasure that puts the gleam in Hayes’ eyes, and he’s no stranger to the pursuit. Over the past few years, Aqua Survey has been subcontracted on several salvages, including that of Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish ship that wrecked off the Florida Keys in 1622. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gold have been recovered from the site, and while Aqua Survey has earned just a fraction of that, its success leaves the team in high demand. But the Arthur Kill project is Hayes’ baby.

“I think we’re pretty close,” he says with a smile. “We have the technology.”

Suddenly, a crewman announces over the radio that there might be a problem with the sled. “I said that we have the technology,” Hayes says, turning back to me with a grin. “I didn’t say it’s been perfected.”

In fact, the entire morning on the Arthur Kill has been less than perfect. First of all, a competing prospector has arrived and is watching Hayes’ crew from afar. Hayes isn’t too concerned (“They’re pretty fly-by-night”). More irritating are threats from local crabbers, who’ve tailed the Aqua Survey team from their dock in Jersey City. They demanded money—what Hayes called “rent”—for the right even to be in this part of the Kill, and when Hayes refused, they dropped crab pots in the expedition’s path. This morning, the crabbers were asking for $300, Hayes says. Apparently, with the approach of noon, the price has gone up to $800.

“They’ve got to be kidding,” Hayes chuckles as a team member relays the revised price. “What’s stopping them from telling their buddies at the bar tonight? How much will they want tomorrow? Tell ’em no deal!”

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, but he did travel to the Mexican works where the bars were first cast. “I wanted to see examples of what we’re looking for.”

While we’ve been chatting on the Hayes, the Delaware has been towing the sled back and forth across the channel in a sweeping pattern, like a lawn mower. Technicians are now convinced the sled has sustained some structural damage.

“There’s some junk down there,” says a machinist as a derrick begins lifting the sled to the surface. “There’s old trucks, refrigerators—who knows what else. It’s bound to get snagged every now and then.”

“Some junk” doesn’t come close to describing the amount of rotting, rusting detritus clogging the banks of the waterway.

Arthur Kill is a veritable graveyard of abandoned machinery that manages to look eerie and haunted even in the blazing summer sunshine. Derelict, oxidized tugboats beached in the shallows have slumped in on themselves; superstructures on half-submerged hulls poke through the murky surface like the ribs of some gargantuan sea monster. Meanwhile, enormous modern supertankers glide quietly by, laden with oil. Despite appearances, this is a body of water that’s actually seen some ecological improvement. Hayes points out that the silversides swimming near the surface have only recently returned to the area, a sure sign, he says, that the ecosystem is slowly headed back to health.

“See how some crabbers have set their pots mostly on the Jersey side of the channel?” asks Ken. “That’s because New Jersey has higher standards when it comes to water pollution. Our ‘friends’ are over on the New York side. Different rules. And what they catch might be eaten in a fancy Manhattan restaurant tonight.”

Within a few minutes, the sled is hauled onto the deck and the bottom sludge hosed off . It looks homemade, because it is: plastic drainpipes held together with epoxy form the sled frame, corrugated plastic sheeting is affixed to the underside of the drainpipe frame with plastic zipties. On the topside of the sled sits the heralded technology: two red rectangular boxes that can “see” deep into sediment that has hidden the booty for over a century.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” says Hayes, hands on the guardrail as he peers into the murk. “This silver is mined and made into bars in Mexico, shipped to Galveston, shipped to Manhattan —that’s thousands of miles over open ocean, mind you—then just a mile or two shy of the refining plant it slides into a shallow brackish channel. Incredible!”

Sure enough, the sled has collided with an obstacle, ripping some of the plastic sheeting from the frame. Extra holes are quickly drilled, more plastic gizmos affixed (for obvious reasons, Hayes doesn’t discuss technical details), and within minutes the sled is sent back down to the bottom.

Should he find the silver, Hayes’ next step is to get a sample in front of a judge in Manhattan, who will decide who gets to keep the money and how much.

“In any other state but New York you’d present any artifact you’d salvaged from the area to a judge,” he says. “It could be anything, a screwdriver, a pipe, whatever—and you’d get salvage rights to that area.” In New York, Hayes has to show up with an actual bar of silver.

“And who knows how many more people will come out here looking for it?”

Whether it’s Hayes who’s the first to stand in a courtroom clutching a 75-pound bar of silver or the shady competitor buzzing nearby on the Kill, he remains philosophical at the prospect of being bested.

“To be honest,” he says, “I think I’d feel some sense of relief. I’d be able to let it go. Look, I’d rather someone, anyone, found it than have it sit down there forever.”

A frequent contributor to Men’s Health and New York, GRANT STODDARD hopes to buy stock in Aqua Survey, Inc.

UNDER COVER OF THE NIGHT

A step-by-step account of how $26 million in silver bars went missing.

1 Late at night on September 26, 1903, the Harold, a barge laden with 7,000 bars of silver bullion, leaves Manhattan. One of 14 barges pulled by a tug boat, the Harold is en route to a smelting plant in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

2 At a speed of just a couple knots, the convoy makes its way around the tip of Manhattan, past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, into Arthur Kill. The Harold is improperly tied by a reportedly drunken crew, and it begins to list to starboard.

3 Starting around 2 a.m., just a few miles short of the smelting plant in the mouth of the Kill, the Harold rolls and spills all but 200 of the “pigs,” most likely in small batches along the riverbed.

4 Awakened by the splashes, Captain Peter Moore nevertheless fails to notice the Harold listing in the rear of the convoy.

5 Upon arriving at the works, stevedores discover the missing bars, and when Moore is questioned, he can offer only a rough position, based on the moon. The load, now worth $26 million, is still down there.

2 Responses to “Finders Keepers”

  1. Janice Says:
    October 7th, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Whoever find those treasure should help people in need, hope it can also do some
    pond aeration in some areas that should fixed in order t o help our environment

  2. Becky Says:
    October 21st, 2009 at 8:51 am

    It's not BRAIN SURGERY to know that before you pull ANYTHING out of a lake, or a river, or swamp,or any kind of water you need a PERMIT!!!!!!! It's not finders keepers, maybe you should check the laws before you start STEALING something you don't have a PERMIT for!!!