Sign In or Create Account

Knowledge Center

Survivors from the “Ship of Gold” Disaster

Surviving coins from the Ship of Gold disaster.

As you know, Gold was discovered in California in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill. The discovery was so large that the US Mint agreed to establish a minting facility in San Francisco in 1850. Constructing the mint, shipping the coin presses and hiring the talent needed to create US coins, took several more years.  

But the first $20 Gold Liberty Double Eagle coins to be struck bearing the “S” mintmark dated 1854. But now the issue was how to get these gold coins back East, where many Americans lived. The options were not easy. You could load the coins into metal strongboxes and take them by stagecoach across 3,000 miles of inhospitable country, including crossing the extremely high Rocky Mountains. There was no transcontinental railroad until 1869. Or you could load them onto a ship and sail from San Francisco past Mexico, past Central America and around Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South America. Then sail north along the coast of South America, through the Caribbean, and up to the port of New York.  That trip, if you encountered only good sailing weather, would take a minimum of 5 to 6 months. 

(North, Central and South America) 

The “best option” would be to sail from San Francisco, down to Panama. Cross the 30-mile-wide jungle at the Isthmus of Panama. And sail through the Caribbean north to New York City. This journey was less than one-third the distance of sailing around South America.  

The SS Central America was a 280-foot-long side-wheel steamer that routinely sailed from the port of Colon in Panama or other Central American ports up the eastern coast of the United States. The ship was extremely sturdy and had powerful boiler engines, for the day. A trip like the one from Panama to New York City was not unusual for a steamer like the SS Central America.  

(The Paddle Wheel Steam SS Central America) 

On the 3rd of September, 1857, the Central America was loaded with 30,000 pounds of Gold, in bars, nuggets, dust and newly minted coins from the San Francisco Mint. This precious cargo was very heavy but certainly not unusual for Central America. Additionally, the ship carried 578 passengers including 101 crew members. It set sail from Colon, as it had done before, and went northwards toward Cuba. 

The ship was under the direction of its captain, William Lewis Herndon. Captain Herndon was a distinguished Naval Officer who served bravely during the Mexican American War. He was an experienced Captain and was highly respected by the crew and passengers alike. 

(Captain William Lewis Herndon) 

By September 6th, the ship stopped in Havana for supplies and fuel. After a day there, they resumed the trip northward. The Southeastern coast of the United States in September is tricky. Hurricane season can wreak havoc on ships and those living on the coast. Sometimes hurricane season starts early, but at other times it may be October before any storms are on the horizon. In 1857, those who sailed had no early warnings of approaching bad weather. 

As the ship passed off the coast of Florida and headed north towards Georgia, the skies turned ominous, and the seas rose. By September 8th, the ship was passing South Carolina and the hope was that if they sailed fast enough, they could outrun any storm. But on September 9th, disaster struck. Off the coast of North Carolina, the SS Central America encountered a ferocious Category 2 hurricane. The seas rose quickly and the winds topped 105 miles per hour. The ship remained on course, albeit slowly now as it was buffeted by the strong waves. By September 11th, the ship’s sails were in tatters, and she was now taking on water. Suddenly the boiler stopped, and she was being horrendously battered by the waves and wind. By noon, the boiler could take no more and shut down. With the boiler inoperable, the bilge pumps that pumped water out of the ship failed. Now a bucket brigade of both crew and passengers frantically tried to save the ship and themselves as well.  

A hurricane is extremely damaging on both the front and back sides of the storm. But the center of a hurricane, called the “eye,” is generally very calm. As the eye passed over Central America, the crew feverishly attempted to restart the boiler. But those attempts were unsuccessful. As night approached, Captain Herndon attempted to rally the crew and passengers. He pointed to the calmer winds and few clouds and told them that he felt the storm was passing. He urged them to continue to bail the water from the ship and he gave them the encouragement that a bit more effort might save the steamer. The crew and especially the passengers needed those words. But as an experienced seaman, Herndon knew the back side of a hurricane is usually the stronger side.    

(The Steamer SS Central America in the hurricane) 

Herndon could also see that despite their best efforts the steamer kept taking on more and more water and once the seas rose again and the ship was in the full fury of this storm, nothing could save it. As he knew it would eventually happen, early on the morning of the 12th, the boiler had stopped for the last time. And then the paddle wheel stopped. And water was coming on board faster and faster.  

It was now time for drastic action. Two ships were seen on the horizon and the Central America’s flag was flown inverted to indicate to the ships that she was in trouble. As the ships came closer to attempt a rescue, the lifeboats were lowered and 153 people, mostly women and children, were nestled in the safety of the little lifeboats. They were desperately trying to reach the other ships for safety. But as the lifeboats were rescued one by one, Central America was adrift, and her stern was now underwater. The waves and wind pushed the lifeless boat further and further away from the ships that had rescued the 153 who made it into the lifeboats.  

By 8:00 PM on September 12th, the SS Central America with Captain Herndon, most of its crew, and many of its passengers, 425 souls in all, and its 30,000 pounds of gold were all unceremoniously swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean.  

No greater sea calamity had ever occurred in America to that time. The news of the sinking and the loss of life was stunning.  

(In Daily and Weekly Newspapers, Headlines about the Sinking of the Central America were the Horrific News of the day.) 

At the time, this was the greatest naval disaster in American history. Tremendous attention was paid, rightly, to the loss of life, but the loss of the 30,000 pounds of gold in different forms was an afterthought. But once the shock had subsided, the loss of $8 million dollars (about $350 million in today’s dollars) of gold from the economy was a contributing factor to the start of the financial Panic of 1857. 30,000 pounds of gold today would be worth over $800 million dollars.  

In 1986 the scene of the sunken steamer was located, and recovery efforts were successful as they had found a significant amount of gold treasure. But as the century ended, the efforts were abandoned. In 2014, with even more vastly improved technology, millions of dollars more of the golden treasure had been rescued and brought to the surface. Coins, bars and even tiny gold nuggets had been recovered.  

The “Ship of Gold” will be remembered rightly for the horrific loss of life, but also for the golden treasures that were recovered that stand as a testament to that fateful voyage.   

Explore More On APMEX



Rare Coins