US Coins

SS Central America shipwreck find astounds: Q. David Bowers

The shipment of 3 tons of gold ingots, federal coins, and privately-minted gold coins aboard the SS Central America originated in San Francisco in August 1857, and went by the SS Sonora to Panama, where the passengers and gold were transferred to the 48-mile-long Panama Railroad, connecting to the port of Aspinwall on the Atlantic side. From there, aboard the Central America, its destination was New York City with a brief stop in Havana. 

The ship ran into a hurricane and sank on the evening of Sept. 12, takings its treasure with it.

Lost and found

In the 1980s, a search for information was mounted by the Columbus-America Discovery Group led by Tommy Thompson, Bob Evans and other adventurers.

In 1987 the treasure-seekers, based in Columbus, Ohio, struck gold — 7,200 feet deep on the ocean floor and about 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina.

In 1989 the discovery of the treasure was publicized. 

Among those reading the news were many people who felt that, one way or another, they had a connection to the ownership of the treasure — possibly a long-lost relationship with one of the insurers of the cargo, or perhaps they helped with information. The result was a barrage of lawsuits that went on for a decade! Millions of dollars were spent by various litigants, as well as the discoverers.

Finally, the Columbus-America Group was awarded slightly over 92 percent of the treasure and the other claimants about 8 percent.

In 1999, the group sold its share of the treasure (and also its future rights) to the California Gold Marketing Group headed by Dwight N. Manley. I was invited to join Manley’s consortium, which I did in a small way. This set me on the course of writing a book about the ship, the Gold Rush and all connected with the coinage and treasure. 

The result was the 1,054-page volume weighing about 11 pounds, A California Gold Rush History Featuring Treasure from the S.S. Central America. The title was suggested by Eric P. Newman, one of my research helpers and a proofreader of the manuscript. About 4,600 copies were printed and sold. Today, a used copy sells for about twice the issue price.

Next week: How to sell 5,305 Mint State 1857-S Coronet double eagles, and their market effect.

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