California Gold Rush Treasure Lost at Sea

In 1857, the U.S. mail ship SS Central America left California for the East Coast. Aboard were 477 passengers, many of them newly rich from the California Gold Rush. They were returning home with their gold, over $2 million worth (hundreds of millions in today's money). But on the last leg of the trip, between Cuba and New York, the ship encountered a hurricane.

The Central America sprang leaks, the water putting the fire out in the boiler, and the paddlewheel and pumps stopped working. Alarmed, the passengers and crew formed a bucket brigade to bail out the sinking ship, while Captain Herndon ordered the flag flown upside down – a universal distress signal.

By Saturday, September 12, the ship was doomed. That afternoon another ship was spotted, the Marine out of Boston, and Captain Herndon ordered the women and children into the Central America’s lifeboats to make the hazardous transfer to the Marine. Around 150 women and children made it before the weather forced the Marine to leave. The male passengers and crew could not make the transfer. Most of them were still on board when the Central America sank around 8 o’clock that night, settling on the sea floor about 8,000 feet below the surface, 160 miles offshore.

Only 49 men survived, and the loss of the gold to the bottom of the Atlantic caused several banks to collapse. Read the whole story of the sinking of the SS Central America and its aftermath. -via Strange Company


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Yes, it was a great summer holiday book. The end left me hanging, as they had just started the recovery. I then searched for more details and learned about hiding from the cops. A short time later his capture made the news. Here's some more details for those interested: ABC News from when the ship was found: http://abcnews.go.com/US/video/treasure-hunter-uncovers-ship-of-gold-28553558 . A report about the early lawsuits: https://www.forbes.com/forbes/2006/0619/158.html . His capture: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/01/30/how-treasure-hunter-tommy-thompson-one-of-the-smartest-fugitives-ever-was-caught/?utm_term=.a18e9101837c
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Gary Kinder's book "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea" gives an engaging description both of the sinking of the SS Central America and, decades later, the search for the wreck and initial recovery of the gold. genealogybank.com only gives a paragraph to that search. To fill in some details, they used all of the newspaper stories and other written records, combined with their knowledge of the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic in general, to narrow down the search, which still took a long time. Once they found the ship they had to recover the gold from the deep waters. They didn't want to damage any of the coins, because that would reduce the numismatic value so invented an epoxy technique that would cover the coins for recovery. There was also a long lawsuit because dozens of insurance companies which had paid damages back in the 1800s claimed rights to contents. Later some of the financial backers and crew members sued Thompson for not providing enough of the promised payout. Thompson went on the lamb for years, and was finally caught in 2015. The US Marshals service called him "one of the most intelligent fugitives ever sought". He and his partner had been living for two years in a Hilton in Florida, living under false names and paying cash for everything. Going back to the ship, it's estimated only 5% of the ship has been excavated.
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