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The Ship Of Gold

The SS Central America was a three-masted, 272-feet long side-wheel steamship that was originally named the SS George Law. In October of 1852, she began to carry mail between Panama and New York City and was relaunched as the SS Central America. Before she met her untimely end, she made 43 round trips between the two ports with each leg of the trip taking between 19 and 42 days to complete. But, on September 3, 1857, the SS Central America left, what is now, Colón, Panama with 476 passengers, a crew of 102, and over three tons of gold. It would never reach New York.

The origin of this bit of golden cargo and most of its passengers was the coast of California; San Francisco to be exact. The California Gold Rush was about ten years old, and the precious ore and nuggets extracted from there in the form of sparkling gold, usually had its first stop at the San Francisco Mint, in operation since 1854 in order to accommodate this stream of precious metals. From there, the recepients of said gold made their way across the continental United States, or around it, via ship. It was the easiest, safest way since the transcontinental railroad was still ten years or so from its completion. So, from San Francisco, people and their cargo sailed south to Panama, then across 49 miles of land via the Panama Railroad, and then up the Atlantic, often on the SS Central America.

As stated earlier, the Central America was a reliable workhorse, carrying mail, people and their cargo, up the Atlantic coast without incident for about five years. But on Wednesday, September 3, 1857, this record of safe voyages was about to come to an end. This forty-fourth and final voyage up the Atlantic, had Navy Captain William Herndon at the helm, since the steamship operated under a federal mail contract. At first, all seemed well and four days later, the ship docked in Havana. Continuing on, the first sign of trouble came at 5:30 A.M. on September the 9th, when progress became obviously slow and swells were beginning to build. Weather forecasting at the time was mostly a guessing game, so even though a storm was probable, there was no alarm. But the winds did not subside, they grew to gale force and by the next morning, the SS Central America found itself slap in the middle of a hurricane.

Although it actually rode the hurricane out, by Saturday morning the damage to the ship was catastrophic. As water continued to overwhelm the ship, abandon ship orders were given. Fortunately for a few, a navy brig, a small ship powered by sail alone, arrived and 109 passengers were saved before the SS Central America and her cargo sank. Four-hundred and twenty-five lives were lost and in the end, a total of 153 were saved. She eventually came to rest 8000 feet below the surface, one-hundred and sixty miles from shore near Charleston, South Carolina. It was the greatest American peacetime maritime disaster up to that time, and strangely enough, in time, she was virtually forgotten.

But, not totally; In 1987, after four years of exhaustive research,Tommy Thompson, geologist Bob Evans,and Lawrence Stone, an expert on search theory, recovered the SS Central America in the muddy depths of the Atlantic. Using Nemo, a sonar equipped undersea robot, the rusting side-wheel was the first feature spotted, lying flat in "eons-old mud." The "time capsule" of archaeological information has since been recovered and has been preserved in various institutions, including the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution. Among the more than 7000 gold coins found aboard the ship, were a unique group of gold ingots from a California assayer, each stamped with its 1857 currency value. None of this size or value had ever been seen before. The largest speciman recovered has been named the Eureka bar and weighs 933 ounces and is valued at $17,433.57. The SS Central America was indeed the Ship of Gold.


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