Central America was a side-wheel steamship (2,141 tons, 278' loa) of
the United States Mail Steamship Company, which sank in a hurricane
in September 1857. Along with about 400 passengers and crew, 30,000
pounds of gold was lost. The shipwreck was recently discovered off
the Carolina coast, and much of the gold was recovered.
SS Central America, Ship of Gold', was a 280-foot (85 m) side-wheel
steamer that operated between Central America and the eastern coast
of the United States during the 1850s. She was originally named the
SS George Law, after Mr. George Law of New York. The ship sank in a
hurricane in September 1857, along with more than 550 passengers and
crew and 30,000 pounds of gold, contributing to the Panic of 1857.
On 3 September 1857, 477 passengers and 101 crew left the Panamanian
port of Colón, sailing for New York City under the command of
William Lewis Herndon. The ship was heavily laden with 10 tons of
gold prospected during the California Gold Rush. After a stop in
Havana, the ship continued north.
On 9 September, the ship was caught up in a Category 2 hurricane
while off the coast of the Carolinas. By 11 September, the 105 mph
(165 km/h) winds and heavy surf had shredded her sails, she was
taking on water, and her boiler was threatening to go out. A leak in
one of the seals to the paddle wheels sealed her fate, and, at noon
that day, her boiler could no longer maintain fire. Steam pressure
dropped, shutting down both the pumps keeping the water at bay and
the paddle wheels that kept her pointed into the wind as the ship
settled by the stern. The passengers and crew flew the ship's flag
upside down (a universal sign of distress) to try to signal a
passing ship. No one came.
The depiction of the sinking
A bucket brigade was formed and her passengers and crew spent the
night fighting a losing battle against the rising water. During the
calm of the hurricane, attempts were made to get the boiler running
again, but these all failed. The second half of the storm then
struck. The ship was now on the verge of foundering. Without power,
the ship was carried along with the storm, so the strong winds would
not abate. The next morning, two ships were spotted, including the
brig Marine. 153 people, primarily women and children, managed to
make their way over in lifeboats. However, the ship remained in an
area of intense winds and heavy seas that pulled the ship and most
of her company away from rescue and eventually took the ship and
many of the roughly 425 people still on board to the bottom at
around 8 pm that night. A Norwegian bark, Ellen, rescued an
additional fifty from the waters. Another three were picked up over
a week later in a lifeboat.
Effects of the sinking
At the time of her sinking, the Central America carried gold then
valued at approximately $2 million USD. The loss shook public
confidence in the economy, and contributed to the Panic of 1857.
Commander William Lewis Herndon, a distinguished officer who had
served during the Mexican-American War and explored the Amazon
Valley, was captain of the Central America. Commander Herndon went
down with his ship. Two US Navy ships were later named USS Herndon
in his honor, as was the town of Herndon, Virginia. Two years after
the sinking, his daughter Ellen married Chester Alan Arthur, later
the 21st President of the United States.
Several books were written about this historic ship. One book is
America's Lost Treasure, a pictorial chronicle of the sinking and
recovery. Gary Kinder's Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea is an
account of the recovery efforts.
Search and discovery
The ship was located by the use of Bayesian search theory and a
remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operated by the Columbus-America
Discovery Group of Ohio, that was sent down on 11 September 1987.
Significant amounts of gold and artifacts were recovered and brought
to the surface by another ROV built specifically for the recovery.
Tommy Thompson led the group. 39 insurance companies filed suit,
claiming that because they paid damages in the 19th century for the
lost gold, they had the right to it. The team that found it argued
that the gold had been abandoned. After a legal battle, 92% of the
gold was awarded to the discovery team in 1996.
The total value of the recovered gold was estimated at $100–150
million. A recovered gold ingot weighing 80 lb (36 kg) sold for a
record $8 million and was recognized as the most valuable piece of
currency in the world at that time.