Sea Treasure

Nearly 1,000 ounces of gold were recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of South Carolina

May 07, 2014

Five gold bars were recovered from the wreck of the S.S. Central America in April 2014.

Tales of sunken ships and buried treasure aren’t just written in storybooks. On Monday, May 5, Odyssey Marine Exploration, a company that explores deep-ocean shipwrecks, announced the recovery of almost 1,000 ounces of gold from a ship that sank more than 150 years ago. The S.S. Central America was caught in a hurricane in 1857 that claimed 425 lives and thousands of pounds of gold. Expeditions to retrieve the lost treasure in the late 1980s and early 1990s recovered about $50 million worth of gold. Now Odyssey is hoping to find even more gold buried in the wreckage.

This photo from 2003 shows the Odyssey Exploration launching a remote operated vehicle into the ocean to recover items from the sunken ship.

This photo from 2003 shows the Odyssey Exploration launching a remote operated vehicle into the ocean to recover items from the sunken ship.

Lost at Sea

The S.S. Central America was a 280-foot wooden-hulled steamship launched in 1853, during the California Gold Rush era. While traveling from California to New York, with nearly 600 passengers and an estimated $400 million of gold bars and coins, the ship sailed into the path of a terrible hurricane. The Central America did not survive the storm, and sank 160 miles off the coast of South Carolina on September 12, 1857.

In addition to hundreds of crates of gold bars, the ship was carrying a large batch of newly-minted American $20 Double Eagle coins. Some of the travelers, fresh from their search for California’s natural treasure, were carrying golden nuggets and coins in their luggage. The impact of the wreckage was so severe, it contributed in part to the Panic of 1857, a time of great financial worry in United States caused by an economic decline.

Gold Marks the Spot

The Civil War followed shortly after the sinking of the Central America, and the lost treasure was soon forgotten by many. But, in 1980, an Ohio native named Tommy Thompson led a search for the ghost ship and its precious cargo. Thompson and his team, the Columbus-America Discovery Group, began conducting research to learn about the possible whereabouts of the lost steamship. They used sonar technologies that allowed them to scan the bottom of the ocean for debris and large objects. In 1988, the team struck gold. They found the long-lost Central America and began recovering its precious contents.

Legal disputes shut down Thompson’s operation, and it wasn’t until last month that Odyssey set out to retrieve the remainder of the ship’s treasure.  The new team, aboard a craft called the Odyssey Explorer, will remain at the site of the wreckage until later this summer. “While we weren’t planning to recover gold so quickly, it did confirm that the site has not been disturbed since it was last visited 1991 and there is gold remaining,” said Mark Gordon, Odyssey’s president and chief operating officer.

The newly-recovered gold includes five gold bars and two of the $20 Double Eagle gold coins. The gold bars weigh between 106 and 344 ounces. Though it is unclear how much more of the sunken fortune will be retrieved, this week’s recovery marks a monumental moment in maritime history. Whatever else lies on the ocean floor amongst the wreckage of the Central America may soon be uncovered. Like any tale of lost treasure, there may be an unexpected ending.


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