NEW IBERIA, LA (WVUE) - It’s early September 1896 and the steamship SS New York has just left Galveston for a trip to New Orleans when it runs straight into a fierce hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Actually, it went through the eye of the storm. When the second eye wall hit him, the ship started breaking up and actually at one point, half the ship was broken off.”
Gary Hebert and a few diving buddies began searching for the ship’s wreckage in the early 1990s. They were looking for the SS New York because they knew it was carrying a large amount of gold and silver coins. They found the wreckage of a steamship buried in the murky bottom of the gulf in 60 feet of water, 40 miles south of the Louisiana-Texas state line.
The divers were pretty sure they had found the right wreckage. But it wasn’t until they located the ship’s bell that they knew for sure they had found treasure.
“From there and kept going and started finding coins. A few coins here. A few coins there. And then as we dug deeper more and more coins and at that point it got really exciting,” says Hebert.
Gary’s wife Renee was part of the dive team.
"He came up and he showed me what he found and it was a gold coin. I went, ‘Oh, Okay.’ So it did really get exciting when you’re finding coins like you’re at an Easter Egg Hunt,” says Renee.
But the treasure hunters were also uncovering history. The New York had 53 people aboard. Seventeen of them died.
It’s a toothbrush. It’s actually bone. This is a hairbrush,” says Renee.
Passengers’ personal belongings had been buried in the sandy sea floor for 160 years.
“It was a suitcase, a lady’s suitcase. And inside there was a lady, a broach, an amethyst broach in there a lady’s writing pen made out of gold.”
Some of the ship’s artifacts are now on display at the Bayou Teche Museum in New Iberia.
The divers filed a claim in federal court and now own the shipwreck. So far, they have recovered more than 500 gold coins, including some minted in New Orleans. And several thousand silver coins. Most have been sold at auction.
“Coins from 12 different countries, a lot of European countries, a lot of South American countries. Mexico. But the main portion was U.S. gold and silver coins which were the most valuable ones,” says Gary. “It’s great when your hobby turns into something that pays for itself, you know.”
And they are sharing some of the historical treasures in the New Iberia Museum that tells the story of a routine journey of a steamship headed for New Orleans that turned tragic in a Gulf of Mexico hurricane.
You can see the artifacts from the shipwrecked SS New York at the Bayou Teche Museum in New Iberia. The museum is open Thursday through Saturday.
For more information visit www.bayoutechemuseum.org.