The ship S.S. Central America is notorious for its demise, occurring in September of 1857, and helping prompt the financial upheaval known as the Panic of 1857.
The S.S. Central America is also known as “The Ship of Gold,” and is perhaps the most talked-about treasure in the history of America. In fact, a book written about the sinking of the ship, called The Deep Blue Sea, was on the NY Times best seller list for months in 1998.
The ship was originally known as the S.S. George Law, and was operated by the United States Mail Steamship Company. She was 272 feet long, a sidewheel steamship, with three masts and launched on October 28, 1852.
During her days as the S.S. George Law, the ship traveled the well-known Atlantic route of the New York to San Francisco journey, making 43 round trips between the city of New York and the Isthmus of Panama. She took between 19 and 24 days to complete the journey, on average. She made this trip until 1857, and had the distinction of carry approximately one third of the entire output of the California Gold Rush, valued at $150 million at that time.
On September 3, 1857, the renamed S.S. Central America left from Panama toward New York City. It was carrying 13 to 15 tons of gold, including newly minted double eagle $20 gold coins minted by the San Francisco mint.
On the sixth day of the journey, September 9, the ships was overtaken by a category 2 hurricane off the Carolina coast. By the time the ship sailed through two more days of bruising winds, her sails had been reduced to threads and she was pulling on water faster than she could bail it out.
The failure of a seal on one of the wheels cemented the fate of the ship, and by noon, the boiler gave in, unable to produce steam in the face of the water onboard. When the boiler went out, so did the pumps that were keeping the water from completely taking over the ship, and the ship began going down.
Despite the upside down flag flying from the mast, no help came, and the passengers and crew formed a bucket brigade in an attempt to bail themselves out of the predicament. They were unsuccessful, as were attempts to restart the boiler during a lull in the storm.
A rescue ship finally came, and 153 people, mostly women and children, managed to make it to safety. Most of the passengers, however, sank with the ship that evening.
At the time it hit the bottom of the ocean, the ship was carrying about $2 in U.S. dollars, in current value. The banks that were depending on those funds were unable to meet their obligations, investors lost confidence, and the ensuing crisis has been labeled the “Panic of 1857.”
The gold was at last recovered by a team in the late 90s, with the team of explorers who led the recovery able to sell about 92 percent of the treasure from the S.S. Central America.