In 1913, the Royal Mail Ship, RMS Niagara was built by John Brown & Co. in Clydebank, Glascow, Scotland, to the highest standards of the great ocean liners of her time. This same shipyard had produced both the mighty Lusitania and the beautiful Empress of Ireland. She was made specifically for New Zealand-based Union Shipping Line's transpacific fleet and her ports of call were Vancouver, Auckland and Sydney. Although not a very large ocean liner at 525ft long and a displacement of 13,415 tons, she was considered quite luxurious and her passengers affectionately called her the “Titanic of the Pacific”. She served the Pacific route for quarter of a century and became an icon of style, quality and reliability.
In 1940, the Niagara was appropriated for Britain's fight against the Germans in World War II. Since New Zealand was a commonwealth of Britain, the Niagara was used quite strategically for its transpacific ties into North America. On June 18th, her four-year captain, Bill Martin was given a secret project. In order to fuel Britain's war efforts, the Niagara was to haul a cargo of eight tons of gold bullion from its home port of Auckland to Vancouver, British Columbia. The bullion was being used to pay the United States for munitions that were essential for Britain's struggle in defense of its homeland.
Unfortunately for the Niagara, the Germans knew of this sea passageway across the Pacific and ordered a German raider, Orion, to lay an extensive minefield in the Hauraki Gulf under cover of the night that very same week. The Niagara hit a mine and slowly sank in a calm sea with no loss of life. Although all the passengers and crew were returned safely to Auckland later the same day, the beautiful liner RMS Niagara was lost with eight tons of gold bullion in 400 feet of water.
Following the sinking, plans were immediately made to recover the gold from the Niagara. A deep salvage attempt of this depth would be one of the most ambitious efforts ever undertaken. Led by Captain J P Williams, a salvage crew and boat named Claymore, the salvage team was assembled for the recovery. It took this crew almost a full year of arduous work to recover the majority of the gold bullion. Later in 1953, an original salvage dive leader employed by Captain Williams named Johnstone recovered all the remaining gold bars with the exception of five bars.
In January of 1999, the first technical divers ( Tim Cashman and Dave Apperley) to visit the Niagara using mixed-gas, closed circuit rebreathers were accomplished at close to 400 feet. Using full-support diving and video teams, the Niagara was extensively filmed and this footage has been shown several times on National Geographic television. The film shows a very beautiful and intact ship with very little damage from the mine or the previous salvage expeditions. May this beautiful ship rest in peace!