September 12, 1857: The Ship of Gold

The California gold rush started in 1848 and ended in 1855. During that time approximately one million, seven hundred and fifty thousand pounds of gold were extracted from the Sierra Nevada and the Northern California gold fields. The cost of this extraction is unfathomable. It damaged the environment to such an extent that many areas of California are still trying to heal. The gold rush caused the deaths of numerous people, including massacres of remaining Native American populations as they were pushed out of their hunting grounds in order for mining operations to commence. Death also stalked miners and prospectors. Dangerous working conditions, skirmishes, and disagreements ended many lives. Once a prospector found gold his life was in danger as unsavory characters in ramshackle boom towns sought wealth through theft, assault, and murder. Many prospectors aimed to strike it rich and vacate the area as soon as possible, yet that too, was no easy feat.

Antique map of California.

Lacking a trans-continental railroad the overland journey was six months long and riddled with trials, tribulations and death. One of the fastest methods of transport at the time was sea travel. The Panama Canal did not yet exist, but train portage across the narrow Panama isthmus was the quickest way for the newly wealthy to return to the Eastern United States. In addition to individuals, mining companies chose this route to transport their harvest of gold to the Eastern seaboard. One such cache left the Panama port of Colón headed for New York City in early September, 1857. The newly renamed SS Central America, now called The Ship of Gold, was a side-wheel steamship loaded with 10 short tons of gold, 578 souls, and all their gold-laden luggage. The bad luck of a renamed ship and the curse of gold are about to make history.

Prospectors, minors, families, and at least one newlywed couple set their sites on New York with calm seas and a hold full of coal to feed the wheel to power the ship home. Five days into their journey the wind began to blow. Seasickness sent white-knuckled passengers to the rail where the heaving seas rose and fell in time with their stomachs. Over the next three days conditions worsened. Captain William Herndon of the SS Central America found himself in a category two hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. The tall waves crashed onto the ship and drained to the lower decks, through the driveshaft. The cross waves rocked the boat making it impossible to wheel the coal to feed the boiler so the fires went out. Then the ship sprung a leak and began taking on a great volume of water. The crew and male passengers had been bailing since early that day, but to no avail. The ship was sinking.

Gold treasure from the SS Central America shipwreck.

After thirty hours of bailing a man cried out, “Sail Ho!” He spotted the Marine in churning seas. Despite the risk Captain Hiram Burt of the Marine, sailed alongside and dispatched life boats. Over hours of rowing in high seas all women and children made it  aboard the Marine. After rescuing 153 people, the Marine was six miles, and four hours of rowing away. Capt. Burt called off the rescue mission and sailed to calmer seas. All people aboard the Marine accepted the fate of the remaining SS Central America passengers and crew with heavy hearts. One hundred and sixty two years ago, the SS Central America sunk on September 12, 1857. Thirty hours after the sinking, the Ellen, a Norwegian vessel sailed through the wreckage and rescued 50 persons from the sea. The survivors were taken to safety and eventually reunited with their loved ones. All survivors praised Captain Herndon’s bravery. The Captain and his ship, however, glided eight-thousand feet to rest on the ocean floor.

Tommy G. Thompson mugshot.In 1986, Tommy Gregory Thompson and his team of scientists began the search for the SS Central America. After two years of searching they located the ship and its loot of gold at 31°34’59.99″ N -77°01’60.00″ W. Then new, ROV technology carried cameras into the black depths where the team was rewarded with a clear view of the distinctive side-wheel. The treasure recovered from the Ship of Gold was valued between $100 and $150 million dollars at 1988 gold prices. Yet that great sum only amounts to 5% of the manifest.

It is at this point that the curse of gold rears its ugly head for a second time. Thompson skips town with the loot and warrants are sent for his arrest. Unable to apprehend Thompson the courts place Odyssey Marine Exploration in charge of recovery and restoration efforts while California Gold Marketing Group saves and auctions the gold as they see fit. Since then, Thompson was apprehended and tried. Unsurprisingly, he lost the jury trial and was ordered to repay his investors and financiers to the tune of millions. Yet the Ohio jury declined to award damages because they felt Thompson acted without malice. Despite that Thompson refuses to disclose the location of supposed missing gold. We may never know the extent of theft involved with this case. Earlier in 2019, the release of SS Central America silver coinage hit the market. Kenny Duncan Sr. of CGMG purchased almost all of the silver recovered and a detailed account of all goods recovered is documented in the upcoming book America’s Greatest Treasure Ship. In addition to gold and silver, there are also the personal belongings of the ship’s crew and passengers, which will eventually sell on the open market.

For more information about the shipwreck and recovery watch this History Channel documentary or read these documents:


The Curse of the Ship of Gold

Tampa Bay Times “Odyssey Marine Exploration to Salvage Gold…”

SS Central America Silver to Market

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