Three years before Titanic met its demise, another supposedly unsinkable White Star luxury liner went down in the heavily trafficked waters off the coast of Nantucket Island. Around 5:30 a.m. on January 23, 1909, a cargo ship bearing Italian immigrants to New York City lost its way in dense fog and crashed into the 570-foot-long RMS Republic, loaded with wealthy passengers and headed to various ports in the Mediterranean. Though only six people died in the incident, while some 1,500 passengers and crew members were rescued, Republic was damaged beyond repair, and sank some 50 miles off Nantucket. With the doomed ship went all of its baggage and cargo, including—according to one persistent theory—a secret cache of rare gold coins intended for delivery to Czar Nicholas II of Russia and worth more than $1 billion in today’s dollars.

Built in 1903 at the Belfast shipyards of Harland and Wolff, RMS Republic was originally christened Columbus and intended for service on the Dominion Line, a transatlantic route between Liverpool and Boston, among other ports on the eastern coast of the United States and Canada. Shortly after its maiden voyage that year, Columbus was transferred to the White Star Line. Its name was changed to Republic, to better go along with other White Star ships (e.g. Titanic, Olympic, Britannic). Classified as a Royal Mail Ship (RMS), Republic was qualified to carry both the British and U.S. mails.

Some 570 feet long and weighing in at nearly 16,000 tons, RMS Republic was one of the largest, most sophisticated passenger vessels in service at the time. Like Titanic, it was considered virtually unsinkable. It became the flagship of White Star’s Boston-Mediterranean route, and was also used on the New York-Europe route, earning the moniker of the “Millionaire’s Ship,” for the number of wealthy passengers it ferried between the United States and various European ports.

Dish from RMS Republic with White Star Line logo, recovered by divers. (Credit: John Blanding/Getty Images)
Dish from RMS Republic with White Star Line logo, recovered by divers. (Credit: John Blanding/Getty Images)

On the afternoon of January 22, 1909, Republic departed New York City with some 461 passengers, bound for Gibraltar and other Mediterranean ports. While sailing through dense fog the following morning, the Italian steamship Florida veered some 30 miles off course and struck Republic amidships on the port side shortly after 5:30 a.m. Two of Republic’s passenger—Mary Lynch and W.J. Mooney—were killed by the collision, as their cabins were located near the point of impact. Mrs. Lynch’s husband was critically injured and died later at a Boston hospital, and three crewmembers aboard the Florida were also killed, bringing the number of total casualties to six.

With its hull punctured, Republic began to sink. Captain William Inman Sealby ordered all of his passengers transferred to the damaged but still viable Florida to wait for a rescue ship. Thanks to the wireless telegraph system only recently invented by Guglielmo Marconi, Republic’s 25-year-old telegraph operator Jack Binns became the first person in history to transmit the CQD distress signal, which eventually reached the Siasconsett wireless station on Nantucket. Another White Star liner, Baltic, arrived and began taking on passengers from the Florida. In all, some 1,500 people were rescued from the two ships—a stark contrast with the Titanic disaster three years later.

Though Sealby and a small crew remained aboard Republic in the hopes of saving it, the ship sank some 50 miles from Nantucket, while being towed back to New York on the day after the crash. Sealby declared he would stay with his ship to the end, but the force of the churning sea knocked him into the water, where he was rescued.

American Eagle gold coin. (Credit: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images)
American Eagle gold coin. (Credit: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images)

In addition to its wealthy passengers and their baggage, Republic was known to have been carrying relief supplies for the survivors of the Messina earthquake, which had killed some 200,000 people in southern Italy a month earlier. The ship also held $60,000 in military supplies intended for Admiral Sperry of the Great White Fleet, stationed near Gibraltar. But from the time the ship went down, rumors circulated of an even greater fortune: a cache of mint-condition American Eagle gold coins worth some $3 million in 1909 dollars, the equivalent of more than $1 billion today.

Martin Bayerle, a former scuba dive shop owner from Martha’s Vineyard, spearheaded the search that located the wreck of Republic in 1981, and has extensively researched the supposed fortune that sank with the ship. He believes the stash of gold coins was a secret international loan secured by France in order to pay back a debt to Russia’s Czar Nicholas II, who was at the time confronting the threat of a Bolshevik-led revolution. On the strength of his theory, Bayerle raised some $2.5 million from investors in 1987. He conducted a 74-day search of Republic wreckage, but his efforts turned up only china and badly damaged bottles of wine and champagne. A Massachusetts court confirmed in 2011 that Bayerle owns exclusive salvage rights to Republic, and he and his son Grant have recently revived the search for its legendary fortune.

Find out more about Billion Dollar Wreck
Find out more about Billion Dollar Wreck