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California and the West

Court Rejects State's Claim to Historic Ship

Salvage: Justices say federal maritime courts must decide whether treasure-hunting company owns steamer that sank in 1865 with $2 million aboard.


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected California's assertion that the state owns the Brother Jonathan--a Gold Rush-era steamer that sunk off the North Coast in 1865--as well as all other historic shipwrecks that lie near the shore.

Instead, the justices said that federal maritime courts must decide on a case by case basis who owns these sunken ships.

The 9-0 decision deals a setback to California's effort to claim these wrecks for historic, cultural and educational purposes. The state Lands Commission envisioned salvaging the ships and putting their artifacts on display at maritime museums.

The state's lawyers relied on the doctrine of state sovereign immunity, usually a winning tactic in the Supreme Court.

But maritime matters are different, the justices said. Disputes involving ships on navigable waterways traditionally are resolved by federal maritime courts. Disputes over the ownership of sunken wrecks should also be resolved that way, the court ruled Wednesday in California vs. Deep Sea Research (96-1400).

An estimated 5,000 wrecks lie along the coastal waters of the United States, and their legal status remains in doubt. Congress in 1987 gave states first claim to wrecks that are considered abandoned. But sometimes the private treasure hunters who discover these wrecks can claim them as found, not abandoned.

The case of the Brother Jonathan now goes back to a federal judge in San Francisco to decide whether the ship is an abandoned wreck that the state can claim or an undersea treasure that was found and properly claimed by a small, commercial diving team.

Deep Sea Research, the diving team, said that it found the wreck in 1994 lying in 250 feet of water four miles off the coast of Crescent City.

In July 1865, the 220-foot, side-wheeled steamer had been traveling from San Francisco to Puget Sound when it struck a submerged rock and sunk within an hour. Newspaper reports at the time said that the ship was carrying an Army payroll and as much as $2 million in gold.

Soon after the disaster, five insurance companies paid claims totaling $48,490 for some of the cargo that had been insured. After finding the wreck, Deep Sea Research paid the insurers an undisclosed amount for their share of the ownership.

"We're obviously pleased," Fletcher Alford, a lawyer in San Francisco who represented the divers, said of Wednesday's ruling. "The end is now in sight. This has been a long haul and a lot of people have poured their hearts, souls and pocketbooks into it.'

He told the court that the diving team is supported by about 100 individual investors of modest means.

A state attorney said his office was disappointed in the decision, but had not given up the fight.

"I'm hopeful. We're going to appear in a federal court and make a showing [that] we own the vessel," said Deputy Atty. Gen. Joseph C. Rosconi. "The test for 'abandonment' is still up in the air."

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