NIAGARA, steamer: Shortly after her departure from Auckland on a passage to Suva and Vancouver the steamer was sunk as the result of striking a mine early on the morning of June 19, 1940. There was no loss of life, her complement of 349-146 passengers and 203 members of the crew-embarking in 18 boats, and by nightfall all were safely back in Auckland.
Calm and comparatively clear conditions prevailed when the Niagara was steaming up the coast, and at 3.40 a.m., when the ship was in the fairway between Bream Head and Moko Hinau Island, a violent explosion occurred which shook the vessel from stem to stern. The hatch covers and stanchions on the forward hold were hurled into the air, and many people were thrown from their bunks. The hold filled so rapidly that it was at once apparent that the vessel had sustained serious damage. Within a few minutes distress signals were sent by radio and rocket flares fired. The order to abandon ship was given almost immediately, and by 4 a.m., when the ship was settling by the head, the majority of the passengers and crew were in the boats.
Water poured through gaping holes near the stricken steamer’s bows, and at 5.32 a.m. the Niagara sank in 70 fathoms of water, disappearing almost without trace. Immediately after her foundering all that was to be seen was oil spread over a wide area of water, and deck fittings and chairs floating on the water. Under the captain’s orders the 18 boats kept comparatively close together, but it was not until 11 a.m., when a coastal steamer arrived, that the first boat’s crew was transferred. An overseas liner, which was in the vicinity when the distress signals were transmitted, was diverted at high speed to the scene, but owing to the presence of a suspected minefield was compelled to lie off at a safe distance. During the morning minesweepers disposed of two mines in the vicinity of where the Niagara was sunk, and on June 23 the steamer Waitotira cut adrift a mine with her paravane in the same vicinity. Subsequently it was learned that these mines formed part of a fairly extensive field laid by the German commerceraider Orion on the night of June 13-14, the mines being of the moored, contact type. Very few injuries were sustained by those on board the Niagara, and all were of a minor nature. The work of abandoning ship was facilitated by the fact that the electric lighting system remained in commission.
The Niagara, No. 135,193, was a steel, triple screw steamer of 13,415 tons gross and 7,582 tons net register, built at Clydebank, Scotland, in 1913 by Messrs. J. Brown and Company, and her dimensions were: length 524.7 ft., beam 66.3 ft., depth 34.5 ft. Her engines were of 12,500 h.p. indicated. She was owned by Canadian-Australasian Line Ltd., and was under the command of Captain W. Martin. The Niagara had accommodation for 590 passengers-250 first class, 200 cabin class, and 140 third class.
In the Niagara’s strongroom was a shipment of 295 boxes, each containing two ingots of gold, of an approximate value of Â£2,500,000, being shipped to the U.S.A. The owners of the gold, the Bank of England, entered into a contract with the United Salvage Proprietary Ltd., of Melbourne, for its recovery. The salvage company, having acquired the old steamer Claymore, of 260 tons gross and 119 tons net register, built in 1902, established their headquarters at Whangarei, and commenced operations on December 15, 1940. On February 2, 1941, the wreck of the Niagara was located in 438 feet of water, the greatest depth at which salvage operations have ever been carried out. Hampered by bad weather, and frequently menaced by mines which on two occasions nearly brought about the destruction of the Claymore and her complement of 18 persons, nearly nine months of arduous and dangerous work ensued, blasting and clearing away sufficient of the steamer’s structure, before access could be obtained to the strongroom, and it was not until October 13 that the first two bars of gold, each worth Â£4,300, were recovered. Two days later the Claymore steamed into Whangarei with gold to the value of Â£84,600 on board. When operations finally ceased on December 8, 1941, the day after Japan’s entry into the war, no fewer than 277k boxes (555 ingots) of gold had been recovered, the approximate value of which was Â£2,379,000, and represented 94 per cent of the total. The remaining boxes of gold, of an approximate value of Â£284,000, were situated in places inaccessible to the grab used for recovering the gold. The operations were carried out under the direction of Captain J. P. Williams, managing director of the company, who was leader of the party and commanded the salvage ship, and Captain J. W. Herd, special salvage officer in Brisbane to the London Salvage Association. Most of the under-water work fell to the company’s chief diver, Mr. J. Johnstone, who was assisted by his brother, Shipwright-diver W. Johnstone, of the Royal Australian Navy, who was released for the duration of the operations. Using a diving bell, 316 descents were made during the salvage operations.