Gold has shaped the very landscape of America. Promising wealth, glory and a chance at a dazzling new life, it drew thousands of people to the western United States in the mid to late 1800s, facilitating a rapid economic growth that forever changed the young country. The immense amount of gold mined during the gold rush, particularly in California, spurred Congress to establish the San Francisco Mint in 1854, which struck $6.8 million worth of coins in its first year. The coins and ingots produced during this time represent an important shift in American history and are among the most coveted and collectible in the numismatics market.
Many factors determine a coin's worth; mintage, condition and design are some determinants. However, what makes a coin highly desirable is, more than anything, the story behind it. Perhaps the most captivating story of American coinage is the infamous S.S. Central America shipwreck and the remarkable recovery of its gold rush-era treasure worth over $100 million. Join us as we delve into the story of this famous “Ship of Gold” and her renowned contents.
Mid-19th century America was experiencing gold fever. The California Gold Rush had attracted throngs of miners hoping to strike it rich. With the sudden windfall of wealth from mining prospects, came the need for rapid distribution. During this boom, the U.S. economy had quickly become reliant on the continuous flow of this shiny new capital, and it was constantly being mined and then transferred to other parts of the country, either in coin or ingot form.
The popular mode of transportation for such precious cargo was steamship. One ship, the side-wheel steamer S.S. Central America, was launched in 1853 to move gold in continuous service on the Atlantic leg of the Panama Route between New York and San Francisco. Up until September 9, 1857, the S.S. Central America had made 43 successful round trips. On that fateful day, however, the ship was caught in a strong hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. She would eventually sink along with her 10 short tons of gold on board, unable to withstand the storm’s raging winds and churning waves. Many of her hundreds of crew members and passengers perished, including Captain William Herndon, and the ship would remain at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for the next 130 years.
The monetary loss of this wreck was catastrophic. The gold contained within totaled an 1857 value of approximately $8 million — an astonishing value of $765 million when adjusted for the value of gold today. To this day, it is considered the greatest economic disaster in U.S. maritime history, largely contributing to the Panic of 1857. A run on banks ensued, causing a financial downturn that the S.S. Central America’s cargo was meant to prevent. The reverberations of these events were felt around the world, and many historians consider the Panic of 1857 the first global economic crisis.
In 1988, after years of research and fundraising, the S.S. Central America was found by a team of 40 engineers, scientists and historians, and it took even longer to recover all of her treasure. In total, 161 partners raised an astounding $10 million to fund the expedition. Eventually, with the help of deep-sea recovery technology, over 7,000 gold pieces were recovered from the commercial shipment area of the shipwreck site. The treasure included some exceptionally rare specie, and each of these coins is full of history, beauty and allure. These coins and ingots live on to tell the story of the “Ship of Gold,” and they represent an incredibly rare and important occurrence on the numismatics market.
One of the most remarkable aspects of their recovery is the fact that these gold pieces were so well-preserved despite living under the ocean for so many years. Saltwater is extremely abrasive and yet the majority of the coins and ingots remained in excellent, even pristine condition. Their soft, finely detailed gold surfaces were largely unmarred by the water, even though wooden boxes that had contained them had rotted away decades ago. The scientists that accompanied the expedition hypothesized that several special environmental conditions came together to protect the gold. The ship came to rest at around 8,500 feet below the surface of the Atlantic. At these depths, water is extremely cold and there is no current, helping preserve these treasures.
Taken together, the coins and ingots recovered from the S.S. Central America offer a fascinating look into the historic and tragic shipwreck, as well as a formative time for the U.S. economy. To discover M.S. Rau’s entire collection of rare coins and currency, explore our website.
Bowers, David Q. Americans Greatest Treasure Ship: The SS Central America: The Second Treasure-funding Journey. Lieu De Publication Non Identifié: California Gold Marketing Group, 2019.