The Ship that Nearly Sank America

On September 3, 1857, the SS Central America left the port of Colón, Panama, en route to New York City. It never arrived. What happened to it? And how did this ship’s failure to reach its destination nearly ruin the United States of America?

The Sinking of the SS Central America

The Sinking of the SS Central America
Painting by J. Childs
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Lost Treasure of the SS Central America?

The SS Central America was a side-wheel steamship that sailed routes between Central America and the east coast of the United States. In 1857, fifteen tons of gold were prospected in California and shipped to Panama via the SS Sonora. Since the Panama Canal was not yet in existence, the enormous gold shipment was transported by train across the country and reloaded onto the Central America.

As the Central America sailed towards New York City, it initially encountered few difficulties. But all that changed on September 9. While sailing off the coast of North Carolina, the steamship found itself engulfed by a Category 2 hurricane. The crew, under the direction of Captain William Lewis Herndon, fought mightily to stave off disaster. But eventually, the hull cracked, sending the gold and over four hundred people to the bottom of the ocean.

The SS Central America and the Panic of 1857?

According to historian Bray Hammond, the ship’s gold represented more than 20% of Wall Street’s gold reserves at the time. As such, the news of the shipwreck caused major financial ramifications throughout the United States.

Early in 1857, agriculture and other industries began drawing against their bank deposits, putting increased pressure on banking gold reserves. The New York Office of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company failed. Other New York banks followed suit as they found themselves unable to pay employees or creditors. A delay in gold shipments from California only added to the bleak situation. And when the SS Central America sank, it ended the last hope of New York bankers to stave off a major financial crash. The Panic of 1857, as it is known today, was perhaps the worst economic depression of the 1800’s. Some historians even consider it a major factor behind the Civil War.

Salvaging the SS Central America?

On September 11, 1987, one hundred and thirty years after the sinking of the SS Central America, the Columbus-America Discovery Group located the wreck in 8,000 feet of water using an ROV. Led by engineer Tommy Thompson, the Group excavated gold in the amount of $100-$150 million dollars. This haul included an eighty-pound ingot, which at that time was determined to be the most expensive piece of currency in the entire world.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The sinking of the SS Central America was one of the greatest maritime disasters in history. It caused over four hundred deaths and caught off all hope of quickly ending the Panic of 1857. The Panic, in turn, helped bring the country one step closer to a full-blown Civil War. The Central America is not widely known today. But in my opinion, it deserves to be recognized as one of the most significant shipwrecks in American history.

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