While not everything that glitters is gold in a shipwreck, one particular wreck that has been widening eyes and dropping jaws since 1988 is back in the news. That is the wreck of the SS Central America, a Pacific Mail steamer sunk in a hurricane off Hatteras in 1857. This past week, the side wheeler was back in the news with word from US District Court in Norfolk that the salvage company’s operational reports and an inventory of the the magnificent treasure of gold pieces could be made public. See a detailed report at www.maritime-executive.com
SS George Law, later known as Central America, in The Mariners’ Museum collections
The reason the salvors were in court in the first place is a tale of treachery. The marine engineer who found the hulk in 1988, a man named Tommy Thompson, worked to salvage a hoard of gold bars and gold coins. The Central America, it seems, carried a cargo of $2 million in gold, now worth orders of magnitude more. It appears that the gentleman took some of the salvaged gold worth about $50 million, sold it, spent some or all of it on legal wranglings, and walked away without paying his investors a red cent. There is a warrant out for his arrest, and he is considered a federal fugitive (see the story here).
The story of Central America‘s sinking was reported in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on Sept. 26, 1857. A violent gale hit on Friday, Sept. 11. The storm sail set to keep the vessel into the wind blew out, the vessel heeled and fell off into the trough of the sea, and setting more canvas was useless, as it just blew out. Passengers started to bail, and bailed all night and into the next day. By that point the brig Marine was in place to rescue passengers, but of the only 5 lifeboats on a ship carrying nearly 600 people, at the end only one was serviceable. The ship sank under them around 8:00 that evening. Only 166 passengers and crew were saved.
The loss of that much gold at this point in the Republic’s history was enough to set off a financial panic. The Panic of 1857 had a number of causes, from waning demand abroad for American goods to a collapse in land prices and railroad stocks domestically to the political upheaval caused by the Dred Scott Decision and the nullification of the Missouri Compromise. The loss of the cargo of SS Central America was enough to push the country over the financial edge. It never fully recovered until after the Civil War.
Engraving of SS Central America in Frank Leslie’s, 1857