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Gold bars, coins, and dust salvaged from the wreck (Reuters)

Ship of Gold: The true story of the SS Central America

A mile below the ocean’s surface, a treasure ship was waiting to be found

It had been a terrifying three days for the nearly 600 passengers of the SS Central America. It was September 1857, and the elegant steamship was heading from Havana, Cuba, to New York City. The voyage had been peaceful, under bright blue skies. Until disaster struck.

The Central America had sailed into the path of a furious hurricane. For three days, enormous waves had pummeled the ship. Screaming winds had shattered its windows and shredded its sails. Water had flooded the lower levels, crippling the ship’s engine. A passing vessel, the Marine, had somehow managed to take on 132 people, mostly women and children. But the Central America—and the rest of her passengers—was doomed.

Just before 8:00 p.m. on September 12, the Central America sank, killing 425 people. It came to rest in mile-deep waters somewhere off the coast of South Carolina.

Shipwrecks were common in the days of the Central America—and in the centuries before. The waters up and down the East Coast, prone to storms, were especially treacherous. Today, the remains of sunken ships are scattered across the ocean floor like bones in an enormous graveyard.

The stories of most of these ships have been forgotten. But the Central America was not an ordinary ship. It was filled with treasure—21 tons of gold. Many of its passengers had been on the final leg of a journey back from the gold fields of California. Thousands of people had flocked to California to get rich during the Gold Rush that began in 1848. Some of the Central America’s passengers were traveling with suitcases packed with gold nuggets, gold coins, and bags of gold dust. Crates of gold bars were stacked in the Central America’s cargo hold.

One Mile Deep

This treasure was worth tens of millions of dollars. As the decades passed, treasure hunters dreamed of finding the Central America.

But how? Nobody knew exactly where the ship sank. Very likely, it had come to rest in waters thousands of feet deep. No human diver can survive those depths. And even if someone could find the wreck, how would they bring the gold to the surface?

In 1980, an engineer named Tommy Thompson began a determined search. He and his team spent years reading 123-year-old newspaper stories and ship logs about the sinking, then used this and other information they found to pinpoint the Central America’s exact location.

They spent millions of dollars on the most sophisticated undersea-exploration technology that existed. They hired experts to build them a robot submarine, named Nemo. The sub could explore the ocean’s depths and beam video images to a ship waiting on the surface.

Thompson’s search took years. There were many failures and frustrations. But finally, in 1989, the team found the wreck in mile-deep waters, 160 miles off the South Carolina coast.

As Nemo’s bright light shined on the wreckage, those watching from above gasped. There was gold everywhere—coins blanketing the ocean floor, gold bars stacked up neatly, gold dust floating in the water like glitter.

“It was beyond our imagination,” Thompson said.

The gold made Thompson a rich man. But the story of the “ship of gold” is a treasure for us too. It takes us back to a wild and hopeful time in America. It reminds us of the power of nature. And it shows that dreams can be lost—and then found again.

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