Our topic is the “gold standard” for literature/numismatic hybrids:
Q. David Bowers’ A California Gold Rush History, which contains a
packet of California gold dust salvaged from the SS Central America.
In September 1857, the steamship Central America left Panama laden
with passengers and a cargo of gold dust, nuggets, ingots and coins
worth $1,595,497 (hundreds of millions in today’s dollars). By Sept.
10, the sidewheel steamer was off the coast of North Carolina, where
it encountered an “equinoctial storm” — a hurricane.
Despite heroic efforts, water overtook the boilers, and the
powerless ship was battered by towering seas. Capt. William Herndon
organized the orderly transfer of the women and children to rescue
vessels that pulled near. When the Central America went down on Sept.
12, 149 of the 587 people aboard were saved. Capt. Herndon went down
with the ship. Something else sank with the Central America, for
several New York banks, deprived of the gold, became insolvent, thus
precipitating the financial Panic of 1857.
In early 1987, an expedition funded by the Columbus-America
Discovery Group, led by Tommy Thompson and Bob Evans, used advanced
search theory and sonar technology to find the wreck 180 miles off the
coast, under 8,500 feet of water. Thompson led the team that recovered
the gold from the seafloor, using a submersible robot called Nemo,
which retrieved the gold without scratching a coin. Evans, a
scientist, led the team that removed marine encrustations and
By 1990, most of the gold was recovered, but legal wrangling over
ownership continued. Finally, the Discovery Group was awarded 92
percent of the salvaged treasure; the other 8 percent went to
insurance companies that had paid claims in 1857. By 2000, the
Discovery Group sold its interests to the California Gold Group,
managed by Dwight Manley, which marketed the gold to the public.
Manley commissioned America’s greatest numismatic scholar, Q.
David Bowers, to write the definitive record of the find. Bowers’
budget for the book: unlimited. His achievement: priceless. A
California Gold Rush History is the undisputed heavyweight champion of
numismatic literature: 10.5 inches wide by 13.5 inches high; 1,055
pages long; and weighing a whopping 11 pounds. Bowers provides a
comprehensive history of the entire California Gold Rush, including
hundreds of contemporary illustrations. The story of the Central
America is told in detail, and a complete listing (including
photographs) is provided for every salvaged gold ingot.
The regular edition of the book is highly collectible, but the
special edition, printed only for purchasers of ingots, is literally
golden. Bound in sumptuous full red morocco leather, embellished with
gilt vignettes of mining tools and of the Central America, housed in a
leather-backed slipcase, it is a work of art. The inside front cover
reproduces a large engraving of a mining scene, and inside a miner’s
pan, under a mylar window, is a pinch of the actual 1857 gold dust
recovered from the wreck.
You can buy this book, but not inexpensively. On Jan, 7, 2010, a
copy sold at a Heritage auction for $2,415. The book is destined to be
the centerpiece of any numismatic library, especially one that is —
literally — sprinkled with historic gold dust.
JOEL J. OROSZ is a charter member of the Numismatic Bibliomania
Society and co-author of The Secret History of the First U.S.
Mint. He can be reached at Joeljorosz@gmail.com.