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Ship of Gold SS Central America 1857 Shipwreck “Gold Rush” Treasure


gold shipwreck treasure

There is a sense of excitement whenever sunken treasure is discovered. In March 1992, Life Magazine called the SS Central America “The Greatest Treasure Ever Found.”

Back in September of 1857, major New York banks, business and individuals were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the SS Central America with a large shipment of California Gold Rush bullion, ingots, nuggets, gold dust and San Francisco Mint coins.

When news came through the telegraph wires that the ship had sunk off the coast of North Carolina, the country went into a panic. It was a time when the country relied on gold to back its banking transactions. Banks closed, businesses went bankrupt and the financial Panic of 1857 deepened – all because the much-awaited Ship of Gold had disappeared with tons of needed gold on board.

This is the gripping story of the ill-fated sailing in 1857, beginning with one ship’s journey from San Francisco to the isthmus of Panama. Then the gold was unloaded and transported over a 30-mile jungle railroad route to the Atlantic side, to be reloaded into the SS Central America – a 280-foot side-wheeler that had made the Panama to New York run many times.

This time, though, the crew had to fight a Category 2 hurricane for three days before abandoning ship. While most women and children were saved, 425 of the 578 on board died.

The captain of the SS Central America, former Naval officer William Lewis Herndon, is remembered as a great leader and hero, going down with the ship.

It is hard to describe the feeling of seeing this gold for the first time. When treasure hunters first spotted this gold with their long-distance cameras sitting in a mound of glistening gold over a mile below the ocean’s surface, they called it a “Garden of Gold.”

Some initial gold was recovered and quickly sold in 2000, but many of us were wondering if we would ever lay eyes on more of this treasure again. Now, finally, more of the ship’s treasure was recovered in 2014 and is available to the public from us. This includes some of the gold coins, gold dust and silver coins recovered.

As the famous actor James Earl Jones says, owning money is like “holding history in your hands.”  Holding 1850s gold from the California Gold Rush and America’s most famous sunken treasure is like holding a little time capsule of America’s numismatic history in your hands.

This time, you and your family can be a part of that history by calling to rescue your piece of the SS Central America treasure before it is quickly gone again.

Q&A with Dr. Mike Fuljenz America’s Gold Expert®
on Gold Recovered from the SS Central America

Q. – As you surveyed many of the 3,000+ gold coins and gold dust, what impressed you the most?
There were some sub-standard coins which I rejected, being a former grading service grader, but I was amazed at how many of these 160-year-old coins had such strong original luster and original mint bloom. Anybody who acquires such a coin will be immediately struck with its brilliant luster. This is also true of the gold dust, although it is, of course, much smaller. Bob Evans applied a proprietary saline solution to the gold dust to reveal the luster.

Q. – Speaking of gold dust, how was that preserved and why is it so important?

Gold dust was a major medium of exchange during the California Gold Rush.  A “pinch” of gold was a unit of exchange in commerce. When properly measured, a gold pinch equaled the gold value of a privately minted 50-cent California fractional gold coin. In California in 1857, two pinches of gold could buy a bag of flour, but most miners went to a saloon before they went to the general store.  In a saloon, one pinch would buy a shot of whiskey, so the saloon owners would hire bartenders with large thumbs to hold a bigger “pinch” of gold dust.  That may sound like cheating, but the cheating went both ways. Some of the miners might mix a little yellow dust with their gold to make their initial drinking spree last longer!

Genuine California Gold Rush gold dust is rare, as it was typically melted into an ingot or used for coin production. Much of the gold dust on sale now was not lying free on the floor of the ocean. It was discovered in hand-sewn sacks, known as “pokes,” much of it locked away in a safe aboard the SS Central America.

Q. – These coins were first recovered in 1988, so why has it taken so long for them to come to market?

Over 7,000 gold coins were recovered from the SS Central America during the ship’s original discovery phase in 1988.  The exploration crew used an undersea robot they called Nemo, a 12,000-pound remotely operated exploration vehicle with the capacity of recovering something as big as a 1,000-pound anchor or as small as a dime-sized coin without damaging its surface. The bulk of the first wave of coins were brought up during the following summer of 1989. That first batch of gold coins that was recovered and conserved was graded by PCGS in the late 1990s and consisted mostly of 1856-S and 1857-S Liberties.

Q. – Why wait so long to recover the second wave of gold coins?

There were legal challenges along the way, but those impediments were finally resolved. The second batch recovered in 2014 consists of far fewer gold coins – only about 3,100 gold coins – including some additional 1856-S and 1857-S $20 Liberties as well as a wide variety of other gold coins, such as $10 Eagles, $5 Half Eagles, $2.50 Quarter Eagles, $3 and $1 Gold pieces as well as some territorial gold coins, gold bars and gold dust.  Due to all the demand and inquiries prior to the coins being available, I believe the market will absorb most of these coins quickly.

Q. – How can we be sure these coins came from the SS Central America?

The Chief Scientist for the SS Central America expedition since its inception in 1983, Bob Evans, has been the exclusive agent for restoring and authenticating these pieces of numismatic history, which are remarkably well preserved, as they have essentially been untouched by human hands since their minting in the 1850s.  His signature is on the authentication certificate inside the innovative PCGS holder that includes a pinch of gold with every coin.

 

Q. – What are the special challenges of restoring a coin that has been so long in salt water and sediment?

Chief scientist of the expedition Bob Evans took particular care with each coin to remove deposits on the surfaces of the coins in order to reveal the coin’s original luster. In many cases, the ocean and the sediment covering the coins protected the surface of the coin. His approach was never to harm the surface of the coin but to reveal the coin’s true surface. His proprietary soaking solution to remove the grime was neither acidic nor base, so it did not affect the flow lines of the original strike, so the flow lines and luster remained undisturbed.

Q. – Why were some coins from other U.S. branch mints found in the SS Central America wreckage?

The explorers flooding the California Gold Rush came from all over the U.S. and the world. They brought gold from the Philadelphia Mint as well as the branch mints in New Orleans, Charlotte and Dahlonega, Georgia, all of which were operational from the late 1830s.  The San Francisco Mint was not launched until 1854, so all of the officially minted circulating U.S. gold in California prior to 1854 came from these other mints. These coins were still in circulation in 1857 and made up part of the fortune that the gold seekers were bringing home to their Eastern families when the SS Central America was lost in 1857.

Within the first year of its operation, the San Francisco mint turned $4 million in gold bullion into coins, with more coins minted each year, so the majority of the coins found in the SS Central America wreckage were San Francisco “S” mint coins, but there are quite a few from the other official U.S. mints as well.

One example of a New Orleans Mint gold coin on the ship was described by Bob Evans, Chief Scientist of the SS Central America project. It was the 1854-O Quarter Eagle, counter-stamped by J.L. Polhemus, a druggist in Sacramento, California. Evans said it was “made in New Orleans at a time when the New Orleans Mint may well have been using California gold to mint coins. Gold Rush gold got around back then!  So this coin made its way all the way to Sacramento, where a shop-keep hammered his name on it. And then, somehow, it made it on to the S.S. Central America, and then, somehow, we brought it back up 150 years later, a couple of hundred miles from North Carolina. That’s a great, full-circle journey!”

Q. – How long was it before the nation discovered that the SS Central America had been lost at sea?

The tragedy was known almost immediately, and it spread like wildfire. The new technology of telegraphy was like the “Internet” of the day and the news went “viral,” as there were telegraphs in most major cities.  The ship went down on September 12, 1857 and the public reaction was almost like what we experienced on September 11, 2001. Adjusted for the era’s population and wealth, the two tragedies were similar: 9/11 struck our financial center in New York, and so did the sinking of the SS Central America.  The gold on the SS Central America was vital to help prop up some major New York banks during the Panic of 1857, which had already begun the previous month with some major New York bank failures, so news of the ship’s stop in Havana and its expected arrival date in New York were widely followed in the news.

When news of the hurricane spread, people became concerned about the safety of the ship, so when the first survivors straggled ashore in Savannah, Georgia, news of the sinking spread fast. With over 450 dead, the human interest stories of men sacrificing their lives to save the women and children were as gripping as the true-life stories of the New York City firemen and other first responders sacrificing their lives to rescue those trapped in the Twin Towers on 9/11, so hundreds of newspapers ran long front-page accounts of the last hours on board ship in the survivors’ own words – of how the men formed bucket brigades that went on for hours, all night long, but to no avail. These stories continued for months in over 200 newspapers.

In addition, Commander William Herndon became a national hero after he nobly went down with the ship. Two cities, in Virginia and Pennsylvania, were named after him, as well as two U.S. Navy ships. To this day, there stands a statue and plaque erected at the U.S. Naval Academy in his honor, which reads:

Commander William Lewis Herndon
1818-1857
Naval Officer – Explorer – Merchant Captain
In command of the Central America, home-bound with California gold seekers
Captain Herndon lost his life in a gallant effort to save
ship and lives during a cyclone off Hatteras, September 12, 1857.

“Forgetful of self, in his death he added a new glory to the annals of the sea”
– Matthew Fontaine Maury

 

Q. – What changes were made to protect lives and gold shipments after the Central America tragedy?

The loss of the SS Central America made Californians think more about keeping more of their wealth closer to home and not shipping so much of it out. This convinced Californians that they should start developing more industry locally rather than sending money back east. Those in the east, of course, didn’t like this idea very much, so the loss of the Central America encouraged businessmen, politicians and many editorialists at the leading newspapers to promote the construction of a Transcontinental Railroad in order to avoid the risks of the sea or overland covered wagons, subject to attacks or natural barriers.

This Transcontinental Railroad opened in 1869, which led directly to the formation of the Carson City Nevada mint in 1870, a mint made necessary by the discovery of silver in Nevada’s Comstock Lode.

“Ship of Gold” Stories Behind Some of the Buried Gold as Told by the Survivors

I thought I would share some of the dramatic stories of the survivors of the SS Central America’s 1857 sinking, as it relates to the gold which they and others held on board that ship – and the harrowing decisions they had to make as the ship was sinking.

Official and “Secret” Gold
(from pages 156-159 of “Ship of Gold”)

“Her gold shipment was documented: With gold valued at $20 an ounce in 1857, the publicly reported commercial shipment totaled between $1.21 and $1.6 million. Although many of the Central America’s records, including her cargo manifest, had been destroyed in the great San Francisco fire of 1906, some accounts estimated that the gold carried by the passengers at least equaled the commercial shipment. And the Department of the Army recently had confirmed a story approaching myth that had circulated for years: that the Central America carried an official secret shipment of gold destined to shore up the faltering northern industrial economy. The letter, dated April 2, 1971, acknowledged that the information about the shipment had been declassified, and it verified that secreted in her hold the Central America had also carried 600 50-pound bar boxes, or another thirty thousand pounds of gold.”

“It was the worst disaster in American shipping and several pundits of the day attributed the Panic of 1857 largely to the loss of gold shipment aboard the steamer.  Passengers and crew on the SS Central America hailed from all 31 states in the young union and many foreign countries. The telegraph only recently had sprouted up and down the East Coast, so that news of the arrival of the first survivors in Savannah shot straight up the wires all the way to Boston and over to New Orleans…. For the first time, reporters relied heavily on the accounts of women. For weeks, dozens of newspapers ran vivid front-page accounts in the survivors’ own words, the articles sometimes filling the page and several more pages inside. As survivors returned to their hometowns and as official bodies inquired into the sinking, the story lived for months in over 200 newspapers.”

Bob Evans, the Chief Scientist for the discovery and recovery of the SS Central America gold has been involved in this search for over 35 years. Back in 1983, Bob searched all local and national libraries for microfiche records from September 1857.  “Two or three days a week, several hours a day, Bob sat on the main floor of the William Oxley Thompson Library at Ohio State, amid the bare concrete columns and the file cabinets filled with rolls of microfilm, his head in a reader, his blue eyes scanning the white on black film of articles from the front pages of old newspapers. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, the New York News, the New York Times, the New York Journal of Commerce. When he saw something pertinent, he made a copy and took it home, where he studied it and pulled information to place on the matrix….”

What the Women Survivors Told Reporters in 1857
(from pages 55-68 of “Ship of Gold”)

“Many of the women traveled with a great deal of money they had not registered with the purser. All of them were now advised not to carry more than two $20 gold pieces with them. Two women retrieved a satchel from their stateroom and upon returning to the cabin, opened the satchel, and weeping, shook $11,000 in gold onto the floor. Through tears, they said that anyone who wanted the money could take what they pleased. ‘That money is all we made in California,’ they added. ‘We were returning home to enjoy it.’” (page 55)

“Before boarding in San Francisco, Thomas Badger had given his wife $16,500 in $20 gold pieces, which she had sewed up in toweling, in three parcels, and laid flat in a trunk. The trunk sat in their stateroom, now in water up to Jane Badger’s knees as she picked her way among the ‘rubbish which strewed the cabin.’ She found the trunk, unlocked it, took out the gold, placed it in a carpetbag, threw a crepe shawl on top, locked the bag, then had to leave it sitting on the lower berth: It was too heavy, she couldn’t lift it.” (page 59)

Some men tried to jump into lifeboats intended only for women and children: “Joseph Bassford, holding a knife and trying to fasten around his waist a money belt containing two thousand dollars in gold, saw that the boat had been cut loose, so he stuffed the whole belt into the side pocket of his coat, leaped from the steamer deck, and landed in the boat. But somehow in his haste to make the boat, he dislodged the money belt and the belt hit the gray water as hard as he hit the boat, and it sank instantly.” (page 68)

Gold Abandoned in Haste as the SS Central America Sank, September 12, 1857
(memoirs of survivor Oliver Manlove, as summarized in pages 124-125 of “Ship of Gold”)

“In the same part of the ship with the poet Oliver Manlove were two brothers named Horn, who had gone to California in 1850. Working together and working hard they had unearthed $6,000 worth of gold, which they had kept in a large carpet sack that one or the other had guarded throughout the trip. ‘I found Anson Horn weeping,’ wrote Manlove. ‘He said that his time had come, that he should never see his home again, which he had longed to see, praying and hoping for it. I tried to encourage him, but he fully believed that his fate was sealed, that all of our fates were sealed.’”

“Now they had to decide whether to take the gold or leave it behind. Most of the passengers were returning miners who had accumulated at least a few thousand dollars in gold, which they carried with them in treasure belts, carpetbags, and purses. But gold was dense. A red house brick weighed about four pounds; a gold brick of the same size weighed nearly fifty. Even in smaller amounts, gold could sink a weak swimmer or quickly exhaust a strong one. Yet some of the men had suffered great hardship since the summer of 1849 to accumulate the contents of that treasure belt or that carpetbag.”

“As if to dramatize the hysteria of such a dilemma, one man ripped open a bag containing $20,000 in gold dust and sprayed it about the cabin as though he were a pixie and the gold were nothing more than tiny grains of sand. Others unhitched treasure belts, upended purses, and snapped open carpetbags, flinging the shiny coins and dust across the floor. ‘Hundreds of thousands of dollars were thus thrown away,’ said a passenger.”

Thomas Badger “had a satchel filled with 825 twenty-dollar double eagle gold pieces fresh from the San Francisco Mint; he retrieved these from his stateroom and, according to a witness, ‘flung them unto the floor’ of the captain’s cabin, telling the men to help themselves. But no one did. Purses filled with gold lay untouched. Amid the shouting and confusion, some men stood topside in a resigned daze and tossed gold coins at the wind.”

These are some of the coins that we are now inspecting and placing on sale for you to enjoy!

To help you understand the background of the exciting new availability of the gold lost at sea over 160 years ago on the SS Central America, here are more selections from the book “Ship of Gold.”  I want to relate the first reactions of the recovery team led by Tommy Thompson and Chief Scientist Bob Evans when they first saw the “garden of gold” from the SS Central America 7,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean in 1988….

Reactions to the First View of the Gold on the Floor of the Ocean
(from Pages 450-455 of “The Ship of Gold”)

“It was just … it was just … covered with gold! I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe it! That was the most thrilling…. We had it right on a pile, nice low pictures, nice and clear. I mean everything was perfect, man. It was incredible! But I looked at it, and I looked up, and, Naaah, this can’t be. I thought, That’s gotta be a bunch of brass laying there. So I looked again! Holy! And I just started looking at the other shots, and I … mean … it … was … PILES! I’m not kidding you, it is awesome! It is absolutely awesome! Stacks of coins and bars of gold of every size and shape are just sitting there!”

– John Doering, the first man to see the first photograph of the sunken treasure (page 450)

“The bottom was carpeted with gold. Gold everywhere, like a garden. The more you looked, the more you saw gold growing out of everything, embedded in all the wood and beams. It was amazing – bars stacked on the bottom like brownies, bars stacked like loaves of bread, bars that appear to have slid into the corner of a room. Some of the bars formed a bridge, all gold bars spanning one area of treasure over here and another area over here, water underneath, and the decks collapsed through on both sides. Then there was a beam with coins stacked on it, just covering it. You couldn’t see the top of the beam, it had so many coins on it.”
– Tommy Thompson’s reaction to the first view of the SS Central America gold (page 452)

“There’s the lure,” said Bob [Evans]. “That’s what brought us here” … “the crew could see the precise grooves etched around the edges of the coins, which now appeared huge on the monitors. One had its back turned, and when Moore adjusted the camera across the top they could read, ‘United States of America.’ At the center was an eagle shield and the rays of the sun, and they could count thirteen stars in a tight oval above the eagle. Curving upward like a smile along the bottom appeared ‘Twenty D.,’ and right above the ‘n’ in ‘Twenty’ was a tiny ‘s,’ the mark of the San Francisco Mint.  ‘Look at that eagle shield on the back,’ said Bob, ‘the luster on it.’…. There stood a coin upright, face front, just as pure and lustrous as the day it left the San Francisco Mint. It was emblazoned with the bust of Lady Liberty, lovely in profile, her hair crossed with a tiara and cascading in ringlets down her neck, thirteen stars surrounding her, and her ringlets stopping just short of the date ‘1857.’ In a pocket thirty feet across, the ocean floor lay covered with these coins. Doering figures he had now seen more gold in one place at one time than any other treasure hunter in history, and that included Cortes and Pizzaro.” (pages 454-455)

 

Ship of Gold SS Central America 1857 Shipwreck “Gold Rush” Treasure Exhibit The Greatest Treasure Ever Found

Nothing excites the public more than finding shipwreck gold. When I was 12, I had a metal detector and entertained dreams of finding some of the buried treasure of Jean Lafitte and other pirates who haunted the bayous of Southwest Louisiana. But there is no ship more famous than the United States Mail Steamship Company’s SS Central America, which in 1857 carried tons of gold worth over $2 million dollars, at $20.67 an ounce, and 38,000 pieces of U.S. mail.

Back in September of 1857, major New York banks, business and individuals were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the SS Central America with a large shipment of gold bullion, ingots, nuggets, dust and coins from the San Francisco Mint – the latest output from the massive gold mines of the California Gold Rush.

When news came through the telegraph wires that the ship had sunk off the coast of North Carolina, the country went into a panic. It was a time when the country relied on gold to back its banking transactions. Banks closed, businesses went bankrupt and the financial Panic of 1857 deepened – all because the much-awaited Ship of Gold had disappeared with tons of needed gold on board.

I was recently in Long Beach, California, examining part of the treasure that was transported on this ship over 160 years ago. There is a sense of excitement whenever sunken treasure is discovered. In March 1992, Life Magazine called the SS Central America “The Greatest Treasure Ever Found.” There were thousands of gold coins on board, struck predominately at the San Francisco Mint, bound for New York.

Back in the 1980s, the SS Central America seemed impossible to find in the vast ocean at an unknown location spread over thousands of square miles at depths reaching 7,000 feet below sea level, but the maverick inventor Tommy Thompson and his crew discovered the shipwreck in 1988. What followed were legal battles worthy of a mystery novel. In fact, the book “Ship of Gold” reads like a mystery novel.

The full title of the book is “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea” by Gary Kinder. It tells the gripping story of the ill-fated sailing in 1857, beginning with one ship’s journey from San Francisco to the Isthmus of Panama. Then the gold was unloaded and transported over a 30-mile jungle railroad route to the Atlantic side, to be reloaded into the SS Central America – a 280-foot side-wheeler that had made the Panama to New York run many times. This time, though, the crew had to fight a Category 2 hurricane for three days before abandoning ship. While most women and children were saved, 425 of the 578 on board died.

The price of any type of room on the trip was not cheap. A first-cabin ticket cost $300 and steerage accommodations sold for $150. This was rather expensive as the average California gold prospector’s wages were only $5 a day.

The captain of the SS Central America, former Naval officer William Lewis Herndon, is remembered as a great leader and hero, going down with the ship, after making sure that most of the women and children were rescued. The Herndon Monument was erected in 1860 at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and the city of Herndon, Virginia (site of Dulles Airport near Washington, DC) is named after the captain.

Most of the book “Ship of Gold” describes the fascinating story of Tommy Thompson and the salvage operation that discovered the ship 131 years later. It’s a fascinating story, since there were many other treasure hunters seeking the treasure. In fact, Warner Brothers paid $800,000 for the movie rights to the book.

When the book “Ship of Gold” was published in 1998, everyone wondered when some of that gold would go on display or become available to the public. Some initial coins were quickly sold in 2000, but many of us were wondering if we would ever lay eyes on more of this treasure again. Now, finally, more of the ship’s gold treasure was recovered in 2014 and is available to the public from us. This includes some of the gold coins, gold dust and silver coins recovered.

It is hard to describe the feeling on seeing this gold for the first time. When treasure hunters first spotted this gold with their long-distance cameras sitting in a mound of glistening gold over a mile below the ocean’s surface, they called it a “Garden of Gold.” Even after 131 years sitting silently on the ocean’s floor, the gold bars and coins were only “lightly covered with sediment,” they said, with sometimes “coral growing right out of a block of gold.” Now that I’ve had a chance to look at these specific coins, I see dozens of specimens that are among the finest known for their date. Each of them is like a little piece of history. You think about who discovered the gold, who held it, who decided to let it go at the last minute.

As the famous actor James Earl Jones says, owning money is like “holding history in your hands.” Holding 1850s gold from the California Gold Rush and America’s most famous sunken treasure is like holding a little time capsule of America’s numismatic history in your hands. This time, you and your family can be a part of that history by calling to reserve your piece of the SS Central America treasure before it is quickly gone again.

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Alfred Lazarski

I always enjoy old U.S. history always learn and enjoy reading about our early history.

Brian

I think the wreck was off the coast of South Carolina.

daniel valascho

i purchased two of the coins from the ship in the late 1980’s. how can i determine their present value?

daniel valascho

i purchased two of the coins from the ship in the late 1980’s. how can i determine their present value?