A Shipwreck for the Ages: The S.S. Central America

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The siren song of gold called from California to every corner of the country. Across the nation, men (and a much smaller number of women) sold their possessions, borrowed money, and spent their savings to get themselves to the Promised Land. The journey, however, was perilous. Prospective gold miners, called ’49ers for the year (1849) that the Gold Rush started, traveled overland across mountain ranges, sailed to Panama, and sailed around Cape Horn – all to reach California.

Just as dangerous in some ways was the trip from California to the East Coast. One ship that regularly made that journey was the S.S. Central America, a 280-foot, wooden-hulled steamer. Launched in 1853, the steamer operated continuously on the Atlantic leg of the San Francisco–New York Panama route.

In September 1857, the S.S. Central America, laden with passengers and 2 tons of gold and coins from San Francisco, sank in a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. 425 people perished, and the loss of the wealth contributed to the Panic of 1857, a depression felt around the world.

The Maritime Bounty is Discovered

For 131 years, the precious cargo lay nestled at the bottom of the sea, presumed lost forever. In 1988, a team using a remotely operated vehicle discovered the ship 160 miles off the coast at a depth of 7,200 feet. Gold estimated to be worth $100–150 million was recovered. Recovery lasted 4 years and covered about 5% of the shipwreck site.

The excitement didn’t stop there: The founder of the discovery company became embroiled in legal battles related to the shipwreck, and he and his assistant went on the lam in 2012. The fugitives were found by U.S. Marshals and extradited to Ohio in 2015.     

In 2014, a deep-ocean exploration firm began archaeological recovery of the ship. They discovered gold coins, nuggets, ingots, and dust. The coins included foreign gold and territorials as well as $20 Double Eagles, $10, $5, $2.50, and $1 gold coins. The coins date 1823–1857, with one scientist calling the hoard a “time capsule” of all coins in use in 1857.

Some standout coins from the S.S. Central America include $20 Liberty Double Eagle gold coins. The Liberty Double Eagle was authorized by Congress in response to the California Gold Rush, and was then minted for over 50 years. The obverse features a classic Greek Lady Liberty in profile wearing a crown bearing the word LIBERTY. The reverse shows a heraldic eagle holding a shield, an olive branch and arrows clutched in his talons.

In the first year, 1850, that the Liberty Double Eagle was minted, 1.1 million coins were produced. After that, far fewer were minted, and the Civil War also dramatically impacted their production. These coins are less frequently found than the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles that replaced them in 1907.

Coins recovered from shipwrecks are renowned for several qualities. Firstly, they are rare. Of the thousands of ships that have sunk, few are recovered, and far fewer still have viable coins aboard. Secondly, shipwreck coins are rare historical artifacts, a glimpse into America’s past. And finally, many shipwreck coins have retained their details, luster, and full strikes, making them prized by collectors.

If you have a chance to get your hands on an S.S. Central America Liberty Double Eagle, consider it the opportunity of a lifetime. Life Magazine called the shipwreck’s bounty “…the greatest treasure ever found”.

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