A Stunning Fortune in Gold Slumbers in the Waters Off North Carolina

Over the months we’ve talked about a lot of shipwrecks containing treasure, but never one that contained so much gold that the loss contributed to a global economic catastrophe. That would be a lot of gold and, by some estimates, the SS Central America was carrying 30,000 pounds of it when she sank in a hurricane just off the coast of North Carolina. At today’s prices that would be in excess of $600 million dollars and that’s just the value of the metal itself, not accounting for its historical value. Other sources put the amount of gold at 6,000 pounds; others say ten tons and the reason for the discrepancies are not clear. The most likely explanation is that it was probably a really bad idea to advertise the fact you were sailing with 21 tons of gold in your ship’s hold.

What we do know is the SS Central America was carrying so much gold at the time of her sinking that she was called The Ship of Gold. The Central America was 285 feet long, made of wood cladded with copper, and powered by a combination of sails and a steam-powered side wheel. As we’ve pointed out in numerous stories in the past, a side-wheel steamer was not the most stable design for ocean transits. Even so, the ship made 43 routine transits between Panama and New York without incident in her years of otherwise reliable service.

While the amount of gold may be in dispute, the fact that the SS Central America was loaded with gold was not at all unusual. Between 1852 and 1857 the SS Central America may have transported up to a third of all the gold mined during the California Gold Rush to the gold markets in New York. The ship’s last haul included tons of uncirculated $20 gold pieces produced at the San Francisco Mint, gold ingots, one of which weighed 933 ounces, gold bars of smaller size and bags of gold dust.

On the 3rd of September of 1857 the SS Central America departed a Panamanian port en route to New York. On board the ship, known for its luxurious accommodations, were 476 passengers and either 101 or 102 crew under the command of Captain William Lewis Herndon. September is the peak of hurricane season and Captain Herndon must have suspected the weather was turning against him during a scheduled stop in Cuba. The waters of the Atlantic are littered with the wrecks and treasures of ships attempting to beat the storms in late summer and early fall. The SS Central America resumed its journey for the five day hop to New York and, at first, everything was grand.

Instead of trusting the ship’s safe, many passengers were carrying gold in their money belts, luggage and sewn into the lining of their clothing. One can rightly question the wisdom of loading your clothing with a dense metal while traveling via ship, but those fortunes were hard won by clawing gold from the earth and their owners were taking no chances.

On the 9th of September the ship was caught in a Category 2 hurricane. To locals on land, a storm barely worth putting down the hurricane shutters for, but at sea, fighting 105 mph winds, the fierce gale shredded the SS Central America’s sails. Taking on water, and barely able to maintain headway against the storm with its boiler-powered side wheel, her pumps couldn’t stop the rising waters threatening to extinguish even that minor amount of propulsion. Then a seal between the paddle wheel shaft and the ship gave way, a common point of failure in ships of that type, and her boilers flooded. Despite frantic attempts by the passengers to bail the ship by hand, she foundered and sank at 8 pm on Saturday, September 12. 153 passengers were rescued by nearby ships and a handful were pulled from the water, including three who survived in a lifeboat for over a week. But the majority perished with the ship, which sat in 7,200 feet of water for over 150 years.

The massive loss of gold meant banks couldn’t make payroll, triggering an economic collapse known as the Panic of 1857.

The ship was located and partially salvaged in 1991 in a story that’s as interesting as the ship itself. The original discoverer raised approximately $150 million worth of gold from the wreck and was promptly sued by the companies which had insured the original cargo. The insurers lost in court, getting only a sliver of the recovery in a settlement. But a second suit was filed against the man by investors who felt cheated, which, frankly, is a pretty impressive amount of chutzpah…

How much gold may still be down there?  Judge for yourself when you discover the final salvage of the ship and her long-lost treasure, to be conducted by Odyssey Marine Salvage, will take place under the supervision of U.S. Marshals. Even today, a treasure in gold is deadly serious business.