Credit: Seattle Times

S.S. Central America

One of the most historically significant as well as the largest shipwrecks in history was the S.S. Central America Shipwreck. Nicknamed “The Ship of Gold,” it was a steamer carrying a number of more than 500 people – including passengers and crew – as well as a cargo of more than 30,000 pounds of gold. The ship is known to have sunk off the coast of the United States in 1857 during a severe hurricane. More than 400 people died during the sinking of the S.S. Central America, leaving fewer than 100 survivors.

The S.S. Central America shipwreck was to remain lost at sea for almost 150 years after its sinking, and its disappearance remains to this day one of the most well-documented in history. The ship was caught in a category 2 hurricane with winds stronger than 100 mph. As she was taking on water, the boiler threatened to give out, and all attempts of signaling passing ships failed. During the time that the ship passed through the eye of the storm, attempts were made to repair the boiler, but they all failed. 150 passengers – mainly women and children – managed to make their way to the lifeboats before the ship went down. Survivors were rescued by the Norwegian bark Ellen; however, a total of 425 people died.

Due to the immense value of the cargo, the S.S. Central America shipwreck became one of the most valuable ship lost at sea in history, and the loss of the gold it was transporting had dire consequences that added to the trouble caused by the Panic of 1857. Although the ship itself was valued at about $140,000 at the time, the gold was worth $2,000,000 – almost an estimated $51 million in today’s money. The Panic of 1857 was an economic crisis that spread throughout the globe, and was greatly worsened by the sinking of the S.S. Central America, whose cargo of gold was anticipated in New York in order to help with the recovery of American banks.

The ship had to await another 141 years before a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and the Bayesian search theory allowed researchers to pinpoint its location. The ship was quickly identified as its wreck site was discovered in 1988, and much of the gold was recovered in its entirety. A legal battle ensued, as more than 30 insurance companies claimed the gold due to having paid insurance claims for its loss in 1857. However, most of the gold was awarded to the discovery team itself. Due to legal issues, only about 5% of the S.S. Central America shipwreck was recovered, and the Odyssey Marine Exploration was appointed to continue the salvage in 2014.


Blane Perun

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