SS Central America

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This article is about the ship. For related uses, see Central America (disambiguation).
Name: SS Central America
Operator: United States Mail Steamship Company
Fate: Sunk 1857
General characteristics
Tonnage: 2,141 long tons (2,175 t)
Length: 278 ft (85 m)
Beam: 40 ft (12 m)
Crew: Captain William Lewis Herndon First Officer Charles W. van Rensselaer

SS Central America, known as the Ship of Gold, was a 280-foot (85 m) sidewheel steamer that operated between Central America and the eastern coast of the United States during the 1850s. It 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 (14,000 kg) 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 short tons (9.1 t) of gold prospected during the California Gold Rush. After a stop in Havana, the ship continued north.

Map plotting the track and intensity of the storm according to the Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale

On 9 September 1857, 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 seas had shredded its sails, it was taking on water, and its boiler was threatening to go out. A leak in one of the seals between the paddle wheel shafts and the ship's sides sealed its fate, and, at noon that day, its boiler could no longer maintain fire. Steam pressure dropped, shutting down both the pumps that had been keeping the water at bay and the paddle wheels that kept it pointed into the wind as the ship settled by the stern. The passengers and crew flew the ship's flag upside down (a sign of distress in the United States) to try to signal a passing ship. No one came.

A depiction of the sinking

A bucket brigade was formed and its 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. One-hundred fifty-three passengers, 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 its company away from rescue and eventually sent the ship to the bottom at 8:00 that night. As a consequence of the sinking, 425 people were killed. A Norwegian bark, Ellen, rescued an additional fifty from the waters.[1] Another three were picked up over a week later in a lifeboat.

Effects of the sinking[edit]

At the time of its sinking, 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 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.

Search and discovery[edit]

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 September 11, 1988.[2] 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. Thirty-nine 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.[3] In March, 2014, a contract was awarded to Odyssey Marine Exploration to conduct archeological recovery and conservation of the remaining shipwreck.

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.[4] Thompson was sued in 2005 by several of the investors who had provided $12.5 million in financing, and in 2006 by several members of his crew, over a lack of returns for their respective investments. Thompson went into hiding in 2012, and was located in January 2015, along with assistant Alison Antekeier, by US Marshals, and will be extradited to Ohio, to provide an accounting of the expedition profits.[3][5][6][7]

A receiver was appointed to take over Thompson's companies and, if possible, salvage more gold from the wreck,[5] in order to recover money for Thompson's various creditors.[3] In 2014, Odyssey Marine Exploration was selected to undertake the salvage.[8] The original expedition only excavated "5 percent" of the ship.[3]

See also[edit]

Some other successful treasure recoveries include:


  1. ^
  2. ^ Kinder, Gary. Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1998. Print.
  3. ^ a b c d Lee Myers, Amanda (13 September 2014). "Feds chase treasure hunter turned fugitive". USA Today. AP. Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  4. ^ Gold Rush brick sells for $8 million / 80-pound ingot bought by executive
  5. ^ a b Gray, Kathy (29 May 2014). "Judge appoints receiver in gold-ship lawsuit". Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  6. ^ "US fugitive treasure hunter appears in Florida court". BBC. BBC News. 29 January 2015. Retrieved 30 January 2015. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Odyssey Marine Exploration to salvage gold from 1857 shipwreck". Tampa Bay Times. 5 May 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Kinder, Gary. (1998). Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0-87113-717-8
  • Thompson, Tommy. (2000). America's Lost Treasure. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0-87113-732-1
  • Klare, Norman. (1991 and 2005). The Final Voyage of the Central America, 1857: The Saga of a Gold Rush Steamship. ISBN 0-87062-210-2 and ISBN 0-9764403-0-X
  • Stone, Lawrence D. Search for the SS Central America: Mathematical Treasure Hunting. Technical Report, Metron Inc. Reston, Virginia.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 31°35′N 77°02′W / 31.583°N 77.033°W / 31.583; -77.033