Recently two of our more beautiful States along the Atlantic seaboard were ravaged by two hurricanes.  Really, though, it was not the hurricanes that did the damage; it was the errant paths that they took and the slow speed with which they finally changed course.  As you know, hurricanes will immediately start to disintegrate upon running ashore.  These two were different.  They came almost to shore then took hours to decide what course to take meanwhile pouring more rain on saturated soil until it was a wonder these two states didn’t float away or join the five great lakes as Lake Carolina, or become Carolina Bay.

But, lest you think this is a one-time occurrence, the Carolinas have been a target for hurricanes due to their particular juxtaposition in the seaboard states since America was known to exist.  This is due to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, which come in close to the shore at that point.  Hurricanes thrive on warm waters.

The Spaniards knew this because they learned it the hard way by losing hundreds of treasure ships, most of which have never been found.  A few have been located like the Atocha, in Florida and another in Bermuda from which millions in gold and jewels have been taken.  The treasure from the Bermuda boat is still on the Island and should not be missed if you visit that most beautiful of islands.

However, today we want to tell you about another more modern treasure ship sunk in a South Carolina hurricane about 150 years ago.  For this story, we must set the stage concerning where the treasure came from, some 2 ½ centuries after the Spanish conquest of the New World.


On a warm day in California, in 1849, a workman for John Sutter’s gristmill noticed a bright shiny pebble at the bottom of the stream that fed water into the millrace.  Intrigued, he stooped over and picked it up.  It was heavy for a stone and after washing the dirt from it, he recognized it for what it was, a nugget of raw gold. Looking further, he saw other sparkles in the sun.  He ran to Sutter to tell him of his find.  Sutter told him to keep quiet about it or they would have everybody in California claiming the land and the millstream would no longer be available for turning the millstones and grinding of grain.  You must admit that this man had a single purpose of mind.  The legend now continues that the man took his small gold nugget to the assayer to find how much it was worth.  The news spread like wildfire through the country and some followed him to his work and saw the flakes of gold.  The story goes on that Sutter lost his mill and that he never received even one tiny flake of gold from the find.  Sutter was a squatter on land nobody wanted until gold was found on it. The news was like a wildfire on the prairie; it ran without a thing to impede its progress.

The United States at the time had spread its wings to encompass the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 from Napoleon and a considerable number of farmers had settled in the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River valleys from 1800 to 1850.  They stayed close to the rivers because this was the one cheap way to get their products to New Orleans.

Suddenly with the ending of the Mexican war in 1846, it became even larger with the acquisition of the territories of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and the lower half of California added.  These areas were very sparsely settled.  There were no railroads, no wagon roads, plenty of hostile Indian tribes and huge herds of buffalo that could decimate a caravan by overrunning it at the sound of thunder or the sight of a lightning bolt.  If early pioneers overcame these perils, there were the formidable Rockies standing directly in their way.  Thousands who attempted the trip west perished.  A few made it.

In the eastern cities, pioneers had another choice, by ship around Cape Horn, where they alternately baked then froze, passengers and crew, in a dreadful and dangerous trip down the eastern coast of the South American Continent to the Magellan Strait.  Here they waited sometimes as long as four weeks to find favorable winds in unheated ships at below zero temperatures.  Once rounding the Horn, they went through the enervating heat of the Equator to reach San Francisco.  Hardly a pleasure trip even at the end because whole crews deserted for the gold fields before the passengers even started to disembark.

Either one of these two choices were formidable indeed. To be killed by Indians, or be run over in a buffalo stampede, or freeze to death in the Rockies, or be drowned or frozen in a boat rounding the Horn.  So some started looking at the little piece of ground called the Isthmus of Panama, some 20 miles from ocean to sea, hoping they would find a way through the jungle.  What they found was just as bad.  The jungle grew almost as fast as they could cut it. They encountered snakes and other wild animals and exposed to the dreaded yellow fever.  However, such was the press of would be miners that when one went down another immediately stepped up to take his place.  One account stated that it was like a flock of sheep where if one went over a cliff to its death the rest of the flock was sure to go.  Today we would call it mass hysteria.

Finally, about 1853 a steamship company decided that these particular hazards could be by-passed by a locomotive and cars running from one ocean to the other.  The trains had an unlimited supply of wood from the jungle for fuel and could carry both passengers and cargo.  First, however, they tried it with a stagecoach after cutting a road through the jungle.  It worked, so then they built the railroad for passenger and cargo travel.  The route proved quite feasible and became the government’s choice for moving vast quantities of the shining metal.

The lack of coins and paper money along with the tremendous immigration to San Francisco created problems of exchange.  A pinch of gold flakes from a leather poke satisfied neither the buyer nor the seller.  So, the government in 1851 set up the first mint west of the Mississippi in San Francisco, with government assayers assigned to measure and buy the gold flakes for melt down into gold bars.  The government liked the ship–train-ship operation for the transfer of this gold made by the San Francisco Mint to its treasury on the east coast.  Remember, also, that the government at that time was on the gold standard.  Every dollar from the presses required its equivalent in gold in the treasury.

With government contracts in hand, the steamship companies upgraded their ships to sail and steam, and the passenger accommodations set a new luxury standard in sea transportation.

The SS Central America was one of these new ships. Built in 1853 she immediately took her place and had completed 43 round trips from Panama to the east Coast ports by the time we pick her up in 1857 in Havana Harbor.  She was some 280 feet from stem to stern, fully rigged for sail on three masts and fitted with two large engines to operate the two 30 foot diameter paddle wheels.

From the time of her inaugural run, she had carried in her holds some 50 million dollars in gold from California.  In her passenger accommodations, she had carried close to 16000 people both going to and coming from California.  The ship’s popularity was well deserved.  The passengers did not lie becalmed in the horse latitudes with the pitch from the caulking running down the deck nor freezing in Antarctica.  They were not troubled by the long slow walk across 2000 treacherous miles of unmarked territory with dangers in every mile.

On this voyage, she had loaded about 3 tons of gold bars and coins, and 10 tons of Army gold but this was only the cargo. Among her approximately 450 passengers were many returning miners who, in the vernacular of our day, were loaded.  In sea chests, money belts, pockets, all of it carefully concealed, they carried almost as much as that contained in the cargo.  But this was flake gold far easier to handle than gold bars.  On this trip, the SS Central America was truly a real treasure ship.

The weather was fair when on the morning of September 8, 1857 they left Havana.  But by midnight, the sea had turned vicious.  Now remember, in those days there were no organizations to track and follow storms. All the captain had was a falling barometer.

By morning, the leading edge of the hurricane hit them and almost finished them.  They had some success battling it by setting some sails to assist the two engines to keep her out of the troughs of the sea.  The ship's carpenter though soon reported that they were taking on water in the hull, but he thought the pumps could handle it.  Then the sails, which were helping her, blew out one by one.  With that, the ship was doomed; the water in her bilges rising.  The captain called on all the male passengers to form a bucket brigade.  They worked eight hours straight and still the water gained until it started to put out the fires in the boilers, and their last hope vanished as the gigantic paddle wheels came to a stop.

They had just entered the eye of the storm when an old sailboat, called the MARINE also entered the eye.  The Captain of the MARINE said he was pretty battered by the storm but would stand by as long as he could so they had better get the women and children off before the rear end of the hurricane caught up with them.

Then began one of the greatest small boat rescues ever attempted when 59 women and children were saved in small boats in 30-foot high waves.  They had to be swayed out on a cargo pole, one at a time and lowered into the lifeboat.  They all arrived at the little battered sailing ship and were hauled aboard one by one, again, from a yardarm sling.  Not one was lost.  In the storm, neither ship had a lee so the lifeboats had no protection.

When all the women and children had been taken off safely, the captain allowed the men to take the remaining boats but refused to allow them to take their gold with them.  Telling them that if they went overboard with gold in their pockets they would sink before any one could rescue them.  He also told them that a lifeboat could take only so much weight and taking any gold would prevent another man from being saved.

Only about 100 of the men of the 550 aboard however made it to the old sailing ship with the last boat reporting that they had seen the SS Central America sink stern first below the waters.  Its location was in 9000 feet of water off the South Carolina Coast.

While all that gold was a big incentive to salvers, they were powerless to do anything about it until technology for deep sea diving had been developed.  Not human diving, but exploration and recovery by deep-sea exploration vehicles guided from a salvage ship, similar to the Titanic discovery and recovery of its artifacts.

In 1995, a chap named Thomas Thompson found the location of the treasure, received salvers rights and brought up a ton of gold by this method.  As bullion alone, its worth is over 10 million dollars almost half of it in twenty-dollar gold pieces, minted in San Francisco.  If this haul is part of the original shipment that went down in the SS Central America and recovered from 9000 feet of water, you would have a treasure where each coin could be worth in the neighborhood of 35,000 to 50,000 dollars.  Nobody yet has come up with any ideas on how to separate the gold dust from the dirt, but we will bet that someday somebody will.  In the meantime, there are about 12 tons of bar gold yet to be recovered.

Now, we have many loose ends to tie up here.  The little, storm battered, sailing ship made it to port without losing any crew or survivors.  This was a second miracle in and of itself.

The loss of the gold aboard the Central America created the panic of 1857.  Since the currency for the lost gold was already in circulation and the gold on the sea floor impossible to recover, the government by law had to restrict credit until every dollar was again backed by a dollar in gold. The ensuing credit crunch caused the panic.

Oh yes, the hurricane?  History is silent.  To the few people in the tidewater areas of the Carolinas it was just a big storm.  However, in those days, most of the land was occupied raising rice and indigo within plantations with most owners living in the cooler mountain areas.  Outside of a few cities, slaves and overseers populated this tidewater area.  To the plantation owners they did not count.  That was before the Civil War and its tremendous social upheaval. 

In this day with the Carolinas becoming a popular vacation resort and much more heavily populated, the coastal populations surely don’t need days of torrential rains and floods while the hurricanes make up their minds which course to take.

Ye Olde Editor


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