In 1857, just before the beginning of the Civil War, the sinking of the S.S. Central America 200 miles off the North Carolina coast caught so much attention it could be called the 19th century’s Titanic.
But unlike the Titanic, a hurricane was to blame for this shipwreck that resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives and significant amounts of gold.
Around 600 passengers and crew, along with about 3 tons of gold, left San Francisco in late August 1857. After passing through Panama, the passengers and crew boarded the steamship S.S. Central America for the rest of the voyage to New York.
The steamship left for its destination on Sept. 3 but its journey was cut short on Sept. 12 when it sustained a severe leak after being exposed to a hurricane. It was quickly determined that rescue of the ship’s crew and passengers would be necessary.
Just about 145 passengers aboard the ship were able to be rescued by three ships in the area. The rest, including the S.S. Central America’s captain, were unfortunately unable to be saved. The significant amount of gold on board also was lost when the ship sank 8,000 feet to the ocean floor.
The amount of gold lost was in fact so great that it could be directly associated with the economic downturn that took place in 1857. It was a very short crisis that was sparked by a loss of public trust in financial institutions after gold payments were suspended. The crisis, along with the shipwreck itself, has been greatly overshadowed by the Civil War that began just a few years later. That said, both events were major news stories at the time.
As one would imagine with that much gold lost, it was only a matter of time before people went in search of the wreckage of the S.S. Central America. In 1985, the Columbus-America Discovery Group was formed to conduct research in deep ocean technology. With a list of shipwrecks to choose from, the group landed on the S.S. Central America. There were a number of factors that made it a favorable choice, the lost gold being one of them.
The wreckage was successfully located in 1988 and excavation began. However, the process was stopped in 1991 due to legal reasons. Fortunately, exploration eventually continued and yielded some success. A large amount of gold has been recovered, including one particular ingot weighing 80 pounds. It was eventually sold for $8 million.
Unfortunately for North Carolina, the shipwreck took place well outside the state’s 3-nautical-mile jurisdiction, so it had no authority over the wreckage. Even so, the shipwreck is yet another part of North Carolina’s fascinating maritime history.
For more on North Carolina’s maritime and local Albemarle area history, please visit the Museum of the Albemarle.
Alec Widmer is a volunteer and contributing researcher at Museum of the Albemarle.