Salvaging the Niagra’s Gold

The RMS Niagra was an ocean liner in the grand tradition of opulent ocean-going palaces, so much so that while under construction in Scotland she earned herself the epithet ‘the Titanic of the Pacific’ though her gross tonnage was only a quarter that of her namesake.

Owned by the Union Steamship Company, she was launched on 17th August, 1912, but by this time her nickname had changed to ‘Queen of the Pacific’. Mariners are a superstitious lot and given that RMS Titanic had struck an iceberg and sunk with the loss of 1,502 passengers and crew on 14th April, 1912, there was never a chance that RMS Niagra would launch 126 days later with the albatross of a reference to the Titanic around her neck.

For the next 28 years RMS Niagra (RMS stands for Royal Mail Ship) was operated by the Canadian-Australasian Line and sailed the Pacific route from Sydney to Vancouver in Canada, via Auckland, Fiji and Honolulu.

On 19th June, 1940, under the command of Captain William Martin, on the second leg of her regular run from Sydney to Vancouver, she steamed out of Auckland heading for Suva. Niagra had berths for around 600 passengers but World War II put a bit of a dampener on luxury cruising and on this voyage she was only carrying 146 passengers with 203 crew to cater to their needs.

At 3.40am, as the ship glided at 16 knots between the Hen and Chicken Islands and the Moko Hinau Islands, about 50km of Northland’s Bream Head, instead of striking an iceberg, she hit one of 228 moored contact mines that had been laid by the German raider HSK Orion one week before in shipping lanes in the northern and eastern approaches to the Hauraki Gulf.

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