Ever since mankind began crossing waterways, deadly storms, rocky
shoals and collisions between vessels have killed countless men, women
and children. Water does not discriminate. It takes human life as
easily as it takes ships and their cargos. The bottoms of the world’s
rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans are littered with wrecks.
Wrecks carry within their holds the detritus of human industry,
sometimes including precious metal — gold and silver coins, ingots and ore.
While uncounted ships carrying coins and bullion have been lost, and
some recovered, two ships that plied the Atlantic Ocean stand out for
the richness of their lost (then found) treasures — the SS Central
America, and the SS Republic.
Years after the last California Gold Rush coins and ingots were
recovered by the original salvors SS Central America, the saga
of the gold treasure lost in the 1857 shipwreck continues. A new
salvage company has found additional treasure at the famous wreck
site. On April 15, 2014, Odyssey Marine Explorations stopped at the
shipwreck site for what had been intended as a brief inspection dive
before the firm’s vessel continued elsewhere. The two-hour exploration
unexpectedly resulted in more than a $1 million in gold ingots and
coins being found and recovered.
A deadly 1857 hurricane
The SS Central America sank Sept. 12, 1857, during a
hurricane off the coast of South Carolina. Some 3 tons of gold, and
maybe more, were lost, and 425 passengers and crew killed when the
ship sank. The vessel was en route to New York City, having left
Panama a few days earlier where passengers and cargo crossed the
isthmus after disembarking from a vessel that plied the Pacific leg of
the trip (from San Francisco to the Pacific coast of Panama).
The loss of the Central America was widely covered in
newspapers, as the sinking of the Titanic would be nearly a
half century later. The number of people killed was frightful, of
course, but the loss of millions of dollars in gold coin and bullion
destined for Eastern banks also had a major impact on the economy.
Eventually, the SS Central America ceased to be a name
familiar to the average American. Insurance companies paid off the
losses in gold, closing their books on the ship. The shipwreck and
treasure remained lost to memory until 1986, when a salvage ship
operated by the Ohio-based Columbus-America Discovery Group located it
in the Atlantic Ocean.
Columbus-America Discovery Group was formed by Tommy Thompson, a
marine engineer who had long dreamed of using his skills to find lost
treasure. After long years of research and the assemblage of a team of
historians (including Robert Evans, who today advises Odyssey Marine
on the new salvage efforts), marine engineers and other experts, an
expedition went out in search of the wreck. After months of searching,
the wreck site was found, along with a fortune in gold ingots and
coins strewn across the ocean floor.
Columbus-America recovered thousands of gold coins — some 5,200
1857-S Coronet $20 double eagles, other federal coins and many
privately issued California gold coins.