September 12, 1857
The California Gold Rush was well underway by 1857, and the SS Central America had so far hauled over one-third of California's output from the northern port of Colon, Panama (called Aspinwall in 1857) to New York City. The "Ship of Gold" had transported about $1.6 million in gold (1857 value) by the time it sank in a hurricane off the South Carolina coast on September 12 of that year.
Over 400 passengers left the San Francisco docks on the SS Sonora, one of the steamships from the Pacific Mail Steamship Line. The journey to Panama would cost $300 for a first cabin and take around two weeks, at which point passengers would take the new Panama Railroad for a four hour journey (rather than tromping through the jungle for a week) to board the SS Central America (of the Atlantic Mail Steamship Company). The gold got a baggage car of its own.
Captain William Lewis Herndon docked the ship in Havana, Cuba on September 7, 1857, and passengers spent the day sightseeing and purchasing souvenirs to bring home. In the early hours of September 9, it was noted by a crew member that they were traveling faster than usual, and that perhaps a storm may be heading their way. By mid-day September 10, the ship was in the midst of a raging hurricane and passengers huddled in their staterooms waiting for the storm to pass.
The SS Central America began taking on water around 11:00 am on Friday, September 11. The water rose above the boiler fires by 1:00 pm, and the huge paddlewheels ceased any movement. All men aboard the ship formed a bucket brigade to bail the water coming aboard, and were able to hold off the seas throughout the night. The next day, Captain Herndon turned the flag upside down as a distress signal. The hurricane slowly subsided, and a ship was spotted on the horizon.
Captain Herndon ordered the women and children into the lifeboats, and over the course of the next hours, the brig Marine was able to bring 109 passengers aboard. The Marine had also been badly damaged by the storm, however, and began to drift too far from the SS Central America. There was no one left to help.
Around 8:oo that evening, the SS Central America was broadsided by a wave that would send her to the bottom of the sea. 153 lives had been saved; 426 had been lost, including Captain Herndon. The loss of $1.6 million in gold was the straw that broke the camel's back in New York. The US had been on the brink of financial crisis prior to the shipwreck; now banks failed, stores closed, and factories stopped producing. The "Panic of 1857" had begun, spurring a financial crash throughout the United States and Europe.
The ship's location was discovered in 1987 by a man named Thomas G. Thomson. It lies 160 miles from the Carolina shore at a depth of approximately 7,200 feet. Since then, over $40 million in gold has been recovered, a series of litigation issues have ensued, and most recently (March 2014) Odyssey Marine Corporation of Tampa, Florida has been issued exclusive rights to recover any remaining treasure on the shipwreck.
South Carolina Chicken Bog