Central America


Artist's Concept

SS Central America – The Lost Ship of Gold


By James Donahue


Among the great sea disasters is the foundering of the SS Central America, a 280-foot sidewheel steamer while caught in a hurricane off the East Coast of the United States in September, 1857.


The Central America, under the command of Captain William Herndon, was steaming from Colon, Panama to New York with 477 passengers, a crew of 101, and a heavy cargo estimated at between 13 and 15 tons of gold recovered in the California gold rush.


Author Gary Kinder in his book, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, wrote that nobody really knows exactly how much gold was on the ship because a lot of it was packed away in carpetbags and money belts of the passengers. In the hold the ship may also have carried a secret shipment of U.S. government gold . . . 600 fifty-pound bars and another 30,000 pounds of gold.


The steamer ran into trouble on September 9 when it was caught in a hurricane packing 105-mile-an-hour winds off the Carolinas. The ship put up a fierce battle for two days but by Sept. 11, the winds and high seas were taking their toll. The ship’s sails were shredded, she was taking on so much water that it was threatening to flood the boilers.


A leak in one of the paddle wheel seals sealed the ship’s fate. By noon that day the boiler could no longer maintain fire and steam pressure dropped. The two steam pumps that had been keeping the ship afloat were shut down and the paddle wheels that kept the vessel’s prow pointed into the wind stopped turning. The Central America now fell back into the trough of the seas. Captain Herndon knew he was losing his command.


Those were the days before ship-to-shore radio and the steamer was caught in a raging hurricane in the Atlantic. The best the ship’s crew could do was fly the vessel’s flag upside down, a universal sign of distress, but no other ships were in the area to see it.


The desperate crew and passengers fought to save the steamer and their own lives. They formed a bucket brigade, trying to manually pitch the water that was sinking the ship.


Kinder described that desperate scene: “As sixty women and children huddled in the saloon, the men bailed, but the water gained on them until they could hear it rolling in the cabins just below the main deck. In one of the most daring rescues ever at sea, Captain Herndon swung all of the women and children off the weather deck into lifeboats manned by his crewmen, who rowed through the storm to a crippled ship which had happened upon the sinking steamer.”


That other vessel was the brig Marine, which was able to temporarily pull abreast of the Central America. One account said as many as 153 people successfully reached the Marine in lifeboats before the storm intensified and the two vessels got separated. That night the steamer foundered, taking about 300 souls to the bottom with it.


Kinder said the vortex from the sinking ship sucked them all down with it. “The rest, exhausted from bailing with no sleep or food, were cast upon and sea and floated on pieces of the wreck.”


A Washington Post reporter recently wrote of that disaster: “The Central America was as sensational a shipwreck in its century as the Titanic was in ours.”


It was said the loss of the Central America and all of the gold contributed to the financial Panic of 1857.


The wreck was found by the Columbus-America Discovery Group in 1987, and special equipment was used to recover a lot of the gold as well as luggage, clothing, bottles and china dishes. It was said much of the recovered gold was highly prized coins from the pre-Civil War era, including mint condition $20 Liberty gold pieces struck at the San Francisco Mint in 1857.


The remains of the Central America rest in about 8,000 feet of water so the recovery involved a lot of very sophisticated deep-water equipment, pluck and guts by the leader of that team, a man named Tommy Thompson.


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Great And Lost Ships Of The World