Henry Wells and the Flagstaff Finial

The centerpiece of my new book The Heroic Age of Diving involves the efforts, from 1852-1856, to recover an American Express Company safe from a stateroom within the wreck of the passenger steamer Atlantic, which sank in August, 1852 in the deepest part of Lake Erie.

Within days of the sinking, which cost the lives of as many as 250 passengers, the nation’s top marine engineers were summoned to Buffalo to survey the possibility of recovering the safe. They came at the request of Henry Wells, the president of the American Express Company. I explain why this meant more to Wells beyond the financial loss:

“…one man was interested in recovering not the whole ship itself, but just one object within it: a safe located in a stateroom behind the Atlantic’s wheelhouse. That man was Henry Wells, founder and president of the American Express Company, owners of the safe. Earlier in 1852, Wells had also founded Wells, Fargo, and Company to offer express services extending west to California. Wells had a pattern of expanding the express business into new territory. In the period around 1840, Wells had worked for Harnden & Co.’s Express and urged them to extend their delivery lines from Albany to Buffalo. The Harndens hesitated, but urged Wells to go ahead on his own, and the result was the American Express Company.

Wells had known and worked with the Harndens at the time when Adolph Harnden died in the shipwreck of the Lexington. The Lexington went down with a cache of Harnden money, a significant loss to the business. Wells was undoubtedly aware that, over the years, different divers–including George W. Taylor and the team of John E. Gowen–had not been successful in recovering the cash from the Lexington. Wells was determined that the Atlantic would not be his Lexington. He wanted his safe from the Atlantic and offered $5000 for its recovery on top of the Wards’ offer of $15,000 for raising the wreck.”

Wells and his engineers ultimately had to rely on the intrepid efforts of diver John B. Green to descend 165 feet to where the ship lay on the lake bottom. No one (as best can be determined) had gone so deep in those early standard dress hard-helmet diving suits, supported by hand-cranked air pumps and imperfect hoses. And absolutely no one was aware of the physiological dangers of dives made so deep.

Green reached the deck of the Atlantic in those efforts of 1852, but could not endure more than a couple of minutes and remain conscious. Wells reluctantly gave up the effort, and later contracted with Albert Bishop, the inventor of a huge floating crane, to raise the Atlantic. Bishop’s efforts, too, met with failure in 1853.

And so, by 1854, it appeared as though the Atlantic was to remain forever out of reach. Diver John B. Green had brought to the surface in 1852 an artifact that proved he made it to the lake bottom. I didn’t know about this until this past week, after publication of the new book.


The Atlantic, an elegant palace steamer, had several flag staffs. It was from one of these that Green took his prize. I recently contacted the archives at Wells College, and the Aurora NY, village historian. They found a photo from the 1870s of Wells’ mansion, Glen Park. It contains two flags: a large free-standing flag pole (seen below in foreground) and a pole coming off the left of the roofline of the house, angled like a bowsprit.

Glen Park 1870s AM

Image courtesy of the Wells College Archives, with assistance from librarian Lisa Hoff and Village Historian Dr. Linda Schwab

My guess is that the Atlantic finial may be the one on the house flag, but neither flag exists today, and the fate of the ball is unknown. Strange that a hard-headed business magnate would want a memento of a failed venture–unless he believed that Green’s reaching that depth was a triumph of human courage and ingenuity in itself.

Note: the safe was recovered in 1856. John B. Green touched it in 1855.




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