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S.S. Central America – The Ship of Gold

August 18th, 2015 by Piper Smith

The SS Central America (formerly the SS George Law) was a 280-foot paddlewheel steamer operating on the route between New York and Aspinwall. The Central America departed New York Harbor on the 20th of every month, carrying up to 500 passengers bound for San Francisco to Aspinwall following a five-day trip down the coast and through the Florida Straits. Upon docking in Panama, these travelers were traded for a like number of California passengers, headed back East on the return journey.


Departing from Aspinwall on  September 3rd 1857, with a full load of passengers, many of them flush with fortunes made in California’s Gold Rush, the Central America began its last voyage. Having experienced clear skies and smooth sailing until reaching port in Havana on September 7th, the weather turned on the morning of September 9th, as the Central America continued on the final leg of her journey home.

Conditions worsened over the next two days and the ship tossed violently in the high seas and winds of what we know today was a category 2 hurricane. By the morning of September 11th, the ship began to take on water and Captain Herndon enlisted the services of all men on board to form a bucket brigade. Their efforts proved futile and by early afternoon the rising water had quenched the fires of the ship’s huge boilers. Without steam, the paddlewheels ground to a halt. With the sails already shredded by the ruthless winds, the SS Central America was at the mercy of the angry sea. By the morning of September 12th, the lower decks and many cabins were underwater and the ship was in grave danger. Captain Herndon ordered the American flag flown upside down as a distress signal in hopes it would be spotted and aid would be rendered by other ships on the heavily traveled passage.


At approxiamely 1:00 PM, the brig Marine was spotted on the horizon, arriving a short time later and a rescue operation ensued. Over a hundred passengers were loaded aboard the tiny Marine before the storm forced a distance of miles between the ships making any further rescue efforts impossible. While the worst of the storm had passed, the Central America continued to fill with water. At a few minutes past 8:00 PM, the ship tipped sharply with the bow raised and sank to a depth of 8,000 feet approximately 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina.


The SS Central America was carrying a cargo of gold valued at the time of its sinking in 1857 at over $2,000,000. The estimated value of the recovered treasure in 1987 was between 100 and 150 million dollars. With gold prices currently skyrocketing over a thousand dollars an ounce, the current value of the Central America’s cargo is astronomical. Known today by treasure hunters, historians, and shipwreck aficionados as the “Ship of Gold”, the SS Central America was carrying thousands of freshly minted 1857-S double eagles, some earlier $20 coins, ingots, and gold in other forms. Some of the double eagles were stacked in long rows or columns and nestled in wooden boxes. Elsewhere around the ship, passengers had their own treasure-purses, bags, and boxes containing smaller amounts of unprocessed gold dust, flakes and tiny nuggets.