Splashin’ around in Old Town

Over the past couple of months I’ve been sadly negligent in writing posts about our walking and hiking outings — the last post was last September, about plans for a hike to a pair of historic plantations in Maryland. But it’s not because we haven’t been busy: we’ve done over 30 hikes since then, including the visit to the plantations. It’s just that in the process of 1) planning, 2) executing, and 3) writing posts about hikes, if I’m running low on energy, it’s the last of those activities that gets curtailed. And I have been short on energy — a cold that jumped me in late November finally turned into pneumonia during the last week of December, so it was a struggle to get on the trail at all. But as of January 1st I’m back in stride again, so I’ll try to post about our hikes a little more often.

The weather forecast for Saturday, January 9, was looking pretty rainy, so I planned a mud-free 5-mile hike around the sidewalks of Old Town Alexandria. Our route took us all around town, past several familiar landmarks and along the Potomac waterfront. As it turned out, the rain held off and we enjoyed a nice walk around town.

In a pleasant surprise, we encountered a little history unfolding along the waterfront: the remnants of a centuries-old ship discovered during the excavation of the lot at 220 S. Union Street, for the eventual construction of the planned Hotel Indigo. That evening, NBC News published an interesting news story about the ship’s discovery and excavation.

The ship, of which only a partial hull remains, was once a heavy wooden cargo or military ship and was scuttled at the site sometime between 1775 and 1798 as part of the Alexandria waterfront development that has been going on for centuries. In fact, were it not for the hotly contested current development, this discovery would probably never have been made at all.

IndigoI suppose people are always resistant to change, but the five-story hotel planned is not a glitzy glass and steel skyscraper. If it turns out to be anything like the artist’s rendition posted on the hotel’s Facebook site, it will fit into the existing neighborhood architecture nicely and be quite an improvement over the long-dormant brick and corrugated steel  warehouses that were at the site.

As exciting as this find is, it prompts speculation about what may be uncovered during future development: the warehouses now occupying the adjacent block to the south stand on what was once the site of Alexandria’s first shipyard, Thomas Fleming’s, dating from the 1760s:

“Thomas Fleming was the most prominent shipbuilder here at the time, having established a yard at Point Lumley at the foot of Duke Street. More than once, George Washington visited Alexandria to witness the launching of new ships, including Capt. Isaac Littledale’s 1200-ton Hero in 1760 and the Jenny in 1768. Perhaps the largest ship built here was the 257-ton, London-registered Recovery.”1

IMG_0813By the time we arrived, most of the ship’s timbers had been removed and stacked on a flatbed, awaiting shipment to a water storage tank to stabilize the wood until its final disposition is determined.

Hopefully, and if funding can be found, the ship and some of the many other artifacts uncovered can someday go on display.


  1. Historic Alexandria, “Discovering the Decades: 1760s,” November 25, 2015. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/zltxyp7
  2. NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, January 9, 2016. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/jbnqpzb
  3. Patricia Sullivan, “The discovery of a 300-year-old ship at a construction site has archaeologists ecstatic,” Washington Post, January 4, 2016. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/jowaat9
  4. Tom Fitzgerald, “HISTORIC FIND: Centuries-old ship discovered at Old Town Alexandria hotel construction site,” Fox 5 DC, January 5, 2016. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/jegttqx
  5. Tom Fitzgerald, “Artifacts recovered providing clues about newly-discovered historic ship,” Fox 5 DC, January 7, 2016. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/z4snro9
  6. Historic Alexandria, “Maps of Historic Sites and Buildings on the Waterfront,” December 28, 2015. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/z9msu2o
  7. Photo, Hotel Indigo Old Town Alexandria, Progress Update – October 13, 2015. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/zj7skw9
Posted in Hiking, History, News, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Unicorn futures

It’s almost that time again — 2016 $50 1-ounce US Gold Buffalo coins go on sale on January 20, 2016. Or at least, that’s when most precious metals dealers will start shipping them. The spot price of gold as I write is around $1072 per ounce, so uncirculated business strike buffaloes, 99.99% pure, will be cheaper than they were in 2008.

2016BuffaloWhat’s been happening in the world of gold lately? Just how hard is it to process an ounce of gold, and how much does it cost?

In a 2013 article from Business Insider, Barrick Gold’s richest mine, Turquoise Ridge, was noted as producing just 0.45 ounces of gold per ton of rock processed. And that was the richest mine cited.1

At that time, it cost Barrick an average of $919 to mine an ounce of gold, and the market price was somewhere around $1400-1600 per ounce, leaving around $500-700 profit. Other companies had higher average production costs, due to higher labor costs, poorer quality ore, deeper shafts, etc., meaning their profit margin was much less.2

That was 2013 — today, the market price is only $1072 per ounce, so Barrick’s profit margin has necessarily been reduced. Barrick has probably been forced to close its poorer mines, such as those that yield only a tenth of an ounce per ton or less. The cost of energy may now be cheaper, due to lower oil and gas prices, but I can’t imagine other overhead costs like labor have gone down much in 2 years’ time.

Is $1072 a good price for an ounce of gold? Who knows? I certainly don’t know the whole story, but even if I did, you can bet everyone plays with the numbers to fit their side of the story.

I saw an analytical article from Bloomberg the other day with this forecast: “The outlook for more interest rate increases in 2016 means bullion could drop to $950 by the end of next year. … The bank [Societe Generale SA in London] sees prices at $955 in next year’s fourth quarter. It’s a completely different era. Maybe it’s not the era of gold anymore. The last decade was a decade of gold. This decade, you’re going to look to something else.”3

All I can say about that is that it’s a good thing for the analyst that the interview ended before he was asked just what that “something else” might be. If market prices drop below current production costs, miners will simply close less productive mines in order to stay in production. I don’t believe any of this “peak gold” nonsense, since we haven’t even begun to mine the seabed, but that’s really beside the point: as of November 2015, there are already 293 ounces of paper gold (ETF shares) being traded on the market for every ounce of real, physical gold in existence:

ComexCoverRatioThe market is already, hundreds of times over, trading in shares that represent ounces of gold that are still in the ground someplace. In short, we’re trading in make believe.4

Trading in gold ETF shares seems akin to playing musical chairs, except that instead of being only one chair short for every 293 players, there’s 292 chairs short. I guess ETF traders are just hoping the music will never stop, or at least not while they’re playing the game. No thanks — it seems safer to dollar-cost average things and buy an ounce of real gold every year. The price of gold might fall some more, but the expectation that it will return to the $250-500/ounce range it traded at between 1983 and 2005, before some $7.66 trillion of US government stimulus spending between 2008 and 2012, is a little unrealistic.5

Physical gold has been a means of storing wealth since the days of the pharaohs. If we’re entering an era of “something else,” it must be an era of unicorn futures or something.


  1. Sam Ro, “Here’s How Many Tons Of Rock You Have To Mine Just For An Ounce Of Gold,” Business Insider, 24 April 2013. http://www.businessinsider.com/tons-of-rock-for-an-ounce-of-gold-2013-4
  2. Jeff Desjardins, “What is the Cost of Mining Gold?” Visual Capitalist, 21 May 2013. http://www.visualcapitalist.com/what-is-the-cost-of-mining-gold/
  3. Luzi Ann Javier, “Gold is on a wild ride,” Bloomberg, 21 December 2015. Via Mineweb.com at http://www.mineweb.com/news-fast-news/gold-is-on-a-wild-ride/
  4. Comex gold cover ratio histogram is from Tyler Durden, “There Are Now 293 Ounces Of Paper Gold For Every Ounce Of Physical As Comex Registered Gold Hits New Low,” Zero Hedge, 4 November 2015. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-11-04/there-are-now-293-ounces-paper-gold-every-ounce-physical-comex-registered-gold-hits-
  5. Sam Ro, “$7.66 Trillion Of Stimulus In America From 2008 To 2012, Itemized,” Business Insider, 21 January 2013. http://www.businessinsider.com/766t-of-fiscal-and-monetary-stimulus-2013-1
  6. Image of a 2016 1 ounce gold buffalo coin is from American Precious Metals Exchange (APMEX) at http://www.apmex.com/product/93752/2016-1-oz-gold-buffalo-bu

Incidentally, Virginia passed a law this April that exempts bullion purchases over $1000 from sales tax:

§ 58.1-609.1. Governmental and commodities exemptions. …

19. On or after July 1, 2015, but before January 1, 2019, gold, silver, or platinum bullion whose sales price exceeds $1,000. Each piece of gold, silver, or platinum need not exceed $1,000, provided that the sales price of one entire transaction of such pieces exceeds $1,000. “Gold, silver, or platinum bullion” means gold, silver, or platinum, and any combination thereof, that has gone through a refining process and is in a state or condition such that its value depends on its mass and purity and not on its form, numismatic value, or other value. Gold, silver, or platinum bullion may contain other metals or substances, provided that the other substances by themselves have minimal value compared with the value of the gold, silver, or platinum. “Gold, silver, or platinum bullion” does not include jewelry or works of art.


Posted in Coins | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Numismatics in a 3D future

2005-Krugerrand-NGCA recent article appearing in Coin World alerted readers to the appearance of a counterfeit 2005 Proof gold ¼ Krugerrand (KM# 160). A genuine 2005 Proof gold ¼ Kruggerand has a retail value of about $475,1 so the potential to spend that amount on a flashy piece of plastic is certainly something for coin collectors to keep an eye out for:

Fullerton, Calif., dealer Dwight Manley recently discovered a fake South African gold Krugerrand coin in a fake NGC holder.

Numismatic Guaranty Corp. has confirmed that the holder and coin are both counterfeit.

There is one distinct difference between the fake and genuine holders, Manley said.

Collectors should look at the left side of the front insert label.

“On the fake coin, the circle in the NGC logo (an encircled balance scale) goes almost entirely around the P in the grade PF 70. On the genuine coin’s label, the P is outside the logo circle,” Manley said.2

But beyond the concern over accidentally buying a fake, what does this mean? Will coin collectors now have to become experts on analyzing holograms on coin holder labels? Probably not:

You can get very basic 3D printers for just a few hundred dollars — about the price of a good inkjet printer or today’s laser printers. …

[The only remaining] barrier is the skills barrier, and that one still has some challenge. … [But by] combining the Internet (and 3D design marketplaces like Thingiverse), someone in one part of the world can design a physical object, and someone on the opposite side of the planet can make it appear.3

To put this into perspective, the price of a 3D printer is now about the price of a genuine Proof gold ¼ Krugerrand. We are at the point at which one skilled counterfeiter can create a 3D design for a fake coin holder (and even a fake coin!), and any unethical person with Internet access will be able to print as many as they like.

Given this, what seems likely is not that we will all have to start analyzing holograms on plastic coin holders, but that the burgeoning plastic coin certification holder industry will become obsolete.

Soon, numismatists may actually have to redirect their attention to the coins themselves, rather than the plastic holders the certification industry has pushed to the forefront, and that will probably be a good thing.

  1. World Coin Price Guide, Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, http://tinyurl.com/pzbm4w9
  2. Jeff Stark, “California coin dealer discovers fake Krugerrand in fake holder,” Coin World, 13 November 2015, http://tinyurl.com/qhy5rdx
  3. David Gerwitz, “3D printing will be huge, in the most boring and fascinating ways imaginable,” ZDNet, 11 November 2015, http://tinyurl.com/q6ufqzw
Posted in Coins, News | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Two Plantations

A hike I’m cooking up to be scheduled sometime during the next few weeks will be a twofer, visiting the sites of two historic plantations in southern Maryland: Mount Aventine and Habre de Venture. The two plantations are preserved today at Chapman State Park and Thomas Stone Historic Site, respectively. The two are pleasant enough during late summer as these photos illustrate, but should make a wonderful outing when the fall leaves arrive!

Mount Aventine

Mount Aventine was purchased in 1751 by Nathaniel Chapman, a wealthy Virginia planter, and was conveniently situated to the residences of George Mason and George Washington, close friends of the Chapman family, just across the Potomac River. In addition to maintaining a large plantation, the Chapman family ran a ferry landing and wharf that eventually serviced steamboats traveling between Alexandria, Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington, and a fishery at Chapman’s Point that was one of the largest in the area at the time. The main house is a 19th century Greek Revival-influenced brick house started during the 1840s, and enlarged about 1860 to its present appearance. The Chapman family owned the property until the early 1900s, when it changed hands several times until acquired by the state of Maryland in 1998.

Today, Chapman State Park has a nice network of trails, and an easy 3-mile hike will take you past many of the remaining plantation features.

Habre de Venture

Habre de Venture was the home of Thomas Stone, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He purchased the plantation in 1770, when the soil was already largely depleted due to the cultivation of tobacco, and the plantation only provided subsistence for its inhabitants. The main house is an irregular, 5-part Maryland manor that was built over several stages to accommodate the extended Stone family. Stone practiced law, was a member of the Continental Congress, helped form the provisional government of Maryland, and served in the Maryland State Senate. Stone’s wife Margaret contracted smallpox from an unsuccessful inoculation, and although she was successfully treated with mercury, the resultant mercury poisoning caused her lingering death in 1787. Stone retired from public life to care for her and died only 4 months after her death. Both are buried at Habre de Venture.

Habre de Venture has recently undergone significant restoration, and an easy 2-mile hike covers the grounds. Given that the site is rather isolated, ranger tours of the manor can be had on an impromptu basis and are very interesting.


  1. Chapman State Park, 3452 Ferry Pl, Indian Head, MD 20640, 301-743-7613: http://tinyurl.com/pqcfvsw
  2. Chapman State Park trail map (pdf): http://tinyurl.com/p2hzcvx
  3. Friends of Chapman State Park, http://tinyurl.com/ooowyez
  4. Mount Aventine at the Maryland National Register Properties: http://tinyurl.com/nm7mmsd
  5. Mount Aventine trail map: http://tinyurl.com/oawrxos
  6. Thomas Stone National Historic Site, 6655 Rose Hill Rd, Port Tobacco, MD 20677, 301-392-1776: http://tinyurl.com/plny6l8
  7. Thomas Stone at Wikipedia: http://tinyurl.com/q7twvcw
  8. Photos of Habre de Venture at the Library of Congress: http://tinyurl.com/q7brpgp
  9. Habre de Venture trail map: http://tinyurl.com/o59vxr9
Posted in Hiking, History, Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Piscataway Park

Piscataway ParkWednesday afternoon I was out snooping around Piscataway Park and the National Colonial Farm to prepare for a hike I scheduled for this coming Sunday. Piscataway Park is named for Piscataway Creek, which in turn is named for the Piscataway Indian Tribe. It is located in Accokeek, Maryland, and was founded to preserve the natural view of the Potomac River from Mount Vernon.

The baseline route I plotted pieced together the trails on the park map into a big counter-clockwise hike from the Visitor Center downstream along the Potomac past the Colonial Farm, inland around the adjacent fields, back upstream along the park road and a trail to the Ecosystem Farm, and then back to the shoreline for the final walk back to the Visitor Center. It was only about 3 miles as the crow flies, but by the time I got back in the car to drive over to explore the adjacent boardwalk trail, 5 miles and 2 hours had somehow slipped by! It think the constant side trips to look at Mount Vernon, directly across the Potomac River, or the reconstructed buildings and livestock in the Colonial and Ecosystem farms had something to do with it. Or it could have been the dozens of butterflies and the occasional rabbit that crossed my path along the way.

Anyway, it was getting towards evening before I made it to the boardwalk for the short walk over the marsh, and if the hundreds of swallows flitting overhead were too fast for me to catch a photo, it was because they were enjoying an hearty evening meal of mosquitoes and other flying insects, leaving less of them to bother me.

Posted in Hiking, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Pimmit Run

IMG_6831Tomorrow we’re hiking the upstream section of Pimmit Run, a tributary of the Potomac that starts in Idylwood, near the I-66/I-495 interchange in Fairfax County, Virginia, and meanders its way north and east through the county before emptying into the Potomac River at Chain Bridge.

Unlike much of the Fairfax Cross County Trail system, this portion of the Pimmit Run Trail hasn’t been cleared, paved, and festooned with markers naming it for a local politician. As a result, some sections are very narrow and can get so overgrown that hikers might be tempted to wear a pith helmet and bring along a machete. But that’s a good thing: the native wildflowers and wildlife flourish.

While we won’t be that far downstream tomorrow, Chain Bridge is the site of the first bridge built over the Potomac in 1797, and is the spot where State Department clerk Stephen Pleasanton briefly secreted the Declaration of Independence and other vital documents during the British occupation of Washington DC in 1814. That event took place on August 23rd, so maybe another hike on the downstream section would be interesting in a couple of weeks, to celebrate the 201st anniversary of the event.

Posted in Hiking, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,


Poking around Old Town Alexandria’s waterfront is always interesting, and I just don’t get down there enough. Maybe because it’s so close and easy to do, scheduling a walk there seems like a bit of a cop-out as opposed to snooping out something more unusual and out-of-the-way. But there were some events over the past couple of months that made it too hard to miss.


In June a replica of the Hermione visited Alexandria on her tour of the eastern seaboard of the United States. The original Hermione was a French frigate that ferried ferried Lafayette to the United States in 1780 in support of the American Revolution. In contrast to the fanfare that accompanied her subsequent visit to New York, she crept into Alexandria during the dead of night and left the same way several days later. We went for an evening walk around Old Town during her visit, but the waterfront area was very crowded, and all the advance tickets for on-board tours were sold out long before the Hermione arrived. Fortunately I visited that morning and took a few photos shortly after dawn. There were wildfires raging Canada at the time, and smoke from them was carried 1,600 miles in the upper atmosphere through the jetstream to impart a yellow haze to the skies at dawn.

The side-by-side appearance of Hermione and Josephine in the last of these photos isn’t quite as interesting of a coincidence as it might first appear, because the original Hermione ran aground and wrecked in 1793. That was two years before Napoleon met Josephine in 1795; the same year he gave the Royalists in Paris the “whiff of grapeshot” that was to launch his career.

Blue moon

Last Friday was occasioned by a blue moon, so naturally we had to take a walk down to and around the waterfront to check it out. A blue moon can either be the second of two full moons in a single calendar month (what we saw), or the third of four full moons in a single season. In any case, the moon wasn’t blue, but red at moonrise, as seen in the wonderful photo at left taken by ML McMahon, and it gradually changed through yellow to its more typical silvery self.

Before the walk an alert member of our group posted the time and direction the space station would be passing overhead that evening, and sure enough it zoomed by, visible for only six minutes.

Guess we’ll have to get down to the Alexandria waterfront a little more often, especially considering all the plans they have for renovation down there over the next few years.

Posted in Hiking, History, Photography | Tagged , , | 6 Comments


We’re at that time of year, around here anyway, when the weather is very unpredictable. There are thunderstorms in the forecast for just about every day, but half the time they don’t materialize, so you might as well schedule your hike and take a chance: you might wind up slogging through the mud in a downpour, or you might end up having a beautiful day. Last weekend we got a couple of those beautiful days, despite the forecast.

Saturday we went to Great Falls National Park, which is always a treat as long as you leave a little early in the morning to get ahead of the rush. (It’s a popular destination.) My favorite route leads south from the Visitor Center to the mouth of Difficult Run on the Potomac River, and then back along the cliffs of the Potomac River Gorge to the Great Falls themselves. This was the first time I remember seeing blue herons on the falls — it’s hard to imagine how they would catch any fish there!

Sunday was something more local: a hike along Accotink Creek, in Fairfax County, Virginia, with a side trip into Brookfield Park. Nothing spectacular; not quite 5 of miles of hiking, but I was surprised to see an osprey in Accotink Park just as we were getting started! They’re quite common farther east in Dyke Marsh or down the Potomac towards Occoquan, but maybe in this case, Lake Accotink afforded a quiet nesting spot.

I can’t complain too much about the uncertain forecasts, though, because in another couple of weeks the dog days of summer will arrive, and what those will be like is all too easy to predict.

Posted in Hiking, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A ship, an adventure, and a treasure

Recently Kitco News published an interesting article about a hoard of sunken gold coins to be recovered from a shipwreck later this summer. What follows is the story of a ship, an adventure, and a treasure. Let’s start with the Kitco article, which notes that salvage efforts are getting ready to begin:

Another season of shipwreck salvage operations is kicking off with Endurance Exploration Group1 in the spotlight this year as the company prepares to salvage £10,000 in gold coins from a 154-year old site.

After two years of research, the company announced, in a press release, Tuesday, it is moving forward with its mobilization plans and expects to start salvage operations between July and September.

Since 2013, Endurance has been surveying a wreck off the New England coast, which is believed to be the S.S. Connaught. The 380-foot iron-hulled side-wheel steamer sunk … on its way to Boston from St John’s Newfoundland, the second leg of its journey from Galway, Ireland.

– Neils Christensen, Sunken Gold Coins To Be Recovered Off Of New England Coast This Summer, Kitco News, 19 May 20152

The Ship

ConnaughtThe S.S. Connaught sank on 9 October, 1860, after a leak sprung and a fire broke out during a storm. She was a brand new ocean liner at the time, having been launched earlier that year at Jarrow on Tyne, in northeast England. The ship departed Galway, Ireland, on 25 September, 1860, bound for Boston and carrying 50 first-class passengers, 417 steerage passengers, and a full crew of 125. En route to Boston, the Connaught put in at St. Johns, Newfoundland, where she “was quietly loaded with £10,000 in gold coins, possibly bound for a visiting member of the royal family.” There’s a great article from io93 about the ship’s sinking and the daring rescue of her crew and passengers by the brig Minnie Schiffer, which was accomplished without loss of life. A contemporary Richmond Dispatch article4 reported that the British government was so gratified by the rescue that it awarded a gold chronometer to the Minnie Schiffer’s captain, a valuable telescope to the mate, and £10 to every member of her crew.

Anyway, to move on to the next part of our story, the “visiting member of the royal family” could only have been 18-year-old Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), more familiarly known to family members as “Bertie.”

Bertie’s Big Adventure

Visiting1860Canada had wanted Queen Victoria to visit since the Crimean War, and invited her to visit Montreal in 1860, for the opening of a railroad bridge across the Saint Lawrence5 to be named after her; then the longest bridge in the world. Having no interest in an Atlantic crossing, Victoria declined the invitation and instead decided to send the heir to the throne, Bertie, who was then on vacation from Oxford. Bertie was not known as a brilliant scholar, particularly by the Queen, and some of his not-so-private hijinks had landed him in both the newspapers and in royal disfavor. Victoria’s husband Albert, the Prince Consort, just so happened to be casting about for ways to demonstrate the monarchy’s relevance, and the invitation led him to a solution that would both increase visibility of the royal family and get Bertie out of town: a Royal Tour of British America and the United States.6  It was to be the first royal visit to the United States since the American Revolution.

Bertie arrived at St. Johns, Newfoundland, on 23 July, 1860, and toured several cities in Canada and the United States. After his last stop, a 3-day stay in Boston, he traveled by train to Portland, Maine, where he departed for England on 20 October. Given this last stop in Boston, it is plausible that the gold coins aboard the S.S. Connaught were intended to arrive in Boston in time to settle debts incurred during Bertie’s visit. And debts there surely were: while some of his stops in Canada were contentious, Bertie proved to be wildly popular in the United States, and he was greeted by cheering crowds at every stop. Bertie loved ballroom dancing, and while in New York, so many guests thronged a ball thrown in his honor that the temporary dance floor collapsed!7

Punch10Nov60While Bertie’s first tour was a success, it actually amounted to not much more than a series of balls and parties, and foreshadowed his years to come. It would be over forty years before he ascended the throne as King Edward VII in 1901, at the age of 60. During the intervening years, lacking any political authority, he continually reprised the rather empty ceremonial role he played during his first tour, visiting India in 1875 and attending this or that grand opening or dedication ceremony. Unfortunately, having shed the chaperones of his teenaged years, some of his subsequent travels gained him a reputation as a lush and a playboy, and you can research details about that for yourself.

The Treasure

What sort of coins might be in the S.S. Connaught’s cargo? I imagine gold American eagles and half-eagles were exchanged pretty freely over the Canadian border for sovereigns and half-sovereigns, at least before the Civil War, but I am of the opinion that most of the coins are likely the latter. The contemporary story by The New York Times, an American newspaper, reported that the Connaught “had £10,000 in gold on board, Government money,”8 which suggests the coins were British pounds rather than American dollars. The British pound (£1) equaled one gold sovereign (or two half-sovereigns) in 1860, so £10,000 in gold coins adds up to quite a lot of gold sovereigns! In U.S. dollars, the 1860 exchange rate was $4.77 to £1, so the coins were worth $47,700 then. Five years later, at the end of the U.S. Civil War, war debt and the printing of so many greenbacks would debase the U.S. dollar to $7.90 to £1! And as long as we’re discussing debasement and changes in value, it’s worth noting that £10,000 in 1860 would have the same relative value as about £840,000 today, in terms of purchasing power.

From a numismatic standpoint, an important consideration in the potential value of what might be recovered is the fact that the Royal Mint conducted a very large recoinage during 1842-1845. The recoinage withdrew £14,000,000 of light gold (i.e., older gold coins that were worn to the point that they were too light), which amounted to about one-third of the total gold in British circulation at the time. Another £500,000 of light gold per year was removed after 1845.9

1860x400The upshot is that many of the gold coins that went down on the S.S. Connaught may have been minted not long before she sank, and are almost certainly Victoria shield sovereigns and half sovereigns. The years involved, 1838 to 1860, include some of the most rare and sought-after sovereign variants: the 1838 and 1843 Narrow Shield variants, the 1841 low mintage key date year, the 1848 First Young Head, and the 1859 Ansell, to name a few. Finding more examples of these would be welcome to collectors, of course, but in the instance of the narrow shield varieties, if a significant number of them is found, it may cause some revision in thought about whether they were patterns; or were a design in general use, most of the examples of which were destroyed during normal recoinage.

Keep your eyes peeled for progress updates on the salvage later this summer: the recovery of up to 10,000 shield sovereigns from the S.S. Connaught may rival the recovery of the cargo of the R.M.S. Douro,10 and has the potential to turn the market for gold Victoria shield sovereigns upside down!


  1. Endurance Exploration Group, Inc., http://www.enduranceexplorationgroup.com/
  2. Neils Christensen, “Sunken Gold Coins To Be Recovered Off Of New England Coast This Summer,” Kitco News, 19 May 2015. http://www.kitco.com/news/2015-05-19/Sunken-Gold-Coins-To-Be-Recovered-Off-Of-New-England-Coast-This-Summer.html
  3. George Dvorsky, “Wreck Of The S.S. Connaught Discovered Off The Coast Of Boston,” io9, 3 October 2014. (The illustration of the launch of the S.S. Connaught, originally from the Illustrated London News, is from this article.) http://io9.com/wreck-of-the-s-s-connaught-discovered-off-the-coast-o-1642205479
  4. The Daily Dispatch, “The brig Minnie Schiffer,” Richmond Dispatch, by Cowardin & Hammersley, 3 December, 1860. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2006.05.0160%3Aarticle%3Dpos%3D74
  5. Wikipedia, “Victoria Bridge (Montreal),” not dated. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_Bridge_%28Montreal%29
  6. J. Castell Hopkins, F.S.S., The Life of King Edward VII, W.E. Scull, 1910 (Project Gutenberg). (The illustration of ‘Bertie’ visiting Canada is from page 57.) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/25112
  7. Robert C. Kennedy, “On This Day: The Imaginary and the Actual Prince,” The New York Times Company and HarpWeek, 2001. (The dance floor collapse anecdote.) https://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/0922.html
  8. (No author cited), “DREADFUL ACCIDENT AT SEA,” The New York Times, 10 October 1860. http://www.nytimes.com/1860/10/10/news/dreadful-accident-sea-burning-steamship-connaught-passengers-crew-mails-all.html
  9. Michael A. Marsh, The Gold Sovereign. Cambridge, the Jubilee Edition, 2002, page 28.
  10. bigjarofwasps, “The true story of the RMS Douro,” Gentlemen’s Military Interest Club, 11 March 2005. http://gmic.co.uk/forums/topic/418-the-true-story-of-the-rms-douro/
  11. The “Latest from America” cartoon from Punch, November 10, 1860, can be found at the House Divided Civil War Research Engine at Dickenson College, http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/31338.
  12. Photo of the 1860 sovereign is by the author.
Posted in Coins, History, News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Three A weekend

All three events last weekend had something to do with the letter “A”, and I didn’t even notice until now! (It wasn’t supposed to be some sort of Sesame Street theme.)

Arsenal of Democracy Flyover

The Arsenal of Democracy Flyover took place in the skies over the National Mall in Washington DC on May 8, 2015, the 70th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day. Fighting DC workday traffic to hang out with a crowd in the noontime heat on the National Mall didn’t sound too appealing, though, and when I found out the flight path would take the participating aircraft downstream along the Potomac River from Washington and over the Wilson Bridge, watching the flyover from there just came natural.

As it turned out, a couple of the formations deviated from the flight path and didn’t come down the Potomac. Most did, though, but I admit the photos are a little less than spectacular.

Incidentally, I thought “Arsenal of Democracy” was a well-chosen title, because it highlights that there can be more than one kind. By itself, an arsenal is a set of inanimate objects; it is a tool. Like any other tool, it has no inherent quality of good or evil — it can be an arsenal of democracy, as in this case, or an arsenal of tyranny. But an effective arsenal is a necessary tool: as Joe Pappalardo observed, when commenting on war in a recent article:

Despite our best wishes and peaceful intentions, someone else with a gun can shape the future. A coalition of the willing can build schools in Afghanistan, but a couple of jerks with rifles and a can of gasoline can reduce it to ashes. Sometimes, meeting violence with more effective violence is what it takes to give peace a chance.

During World War Two, our arsenal enabled us “to roll back aggression and deter aggressors, to end dictatorships, to stop genocide, [and] to protect the supply of commodities central to the nation’s interest.” Unfortunately the time needed to build an effective arsenal had to be purchased by the precious lives lost at distant places like Bataan and Guadalcanal.


A visit to the National Arboretum is a “must do” event every year around Mother’s Day, and it’s best to go really early in the morning and hopefully not on Mother’s Day itself. Accordingly, we visited the day before at 8 am and were rewarded with cool temperatures and scant competition to admire the azaleas.

This year was notable in that bald eagles are nesting atop Mount Hamilton, so some of the paths leading through the azaleas were barricaded off to prevent visitors from disturbing the eagles. (And conversely, to protect visitors from the eagles. I’m not sure how aggressively eagles defend their nesting sites, but it’s not something I’d care to test, either!)

It’s a good thing these eagles chose to nest here. Had they chosen to nest near a wind farm they would have little to no protection, because of an Interior Department’s eagle “take” rule finalized last December that would allow wind farms to kill eagles for up to 30 years. How they manage this rule is beyond me, given the fact that the bald eagle is protected by federal laws, including the Migratory Bird Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) recently announced it was suing the administration over the new rule.

Accotink Creek

Sunday we took an easy stroll through the woods along one of the Accotink River’s tributaries, Long Branch. An early treat was a small herd of deer relaxing by the stream, that reluctantly got up and moseyed along as our group came up. As the morning went by we ran into quite a few other folks out for a morning stroll on Mother’s Day.

During the summer months to come we’ll have to come back to the Accotink a few times. The relatively flat trails are easily accessible and provide cool, shady relief from late summer heat.

Posted in Hiking, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments