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The Sinking of the S.S. Central America

Until last week, when treasure hunters began hauling gold off the Atlantic floor, the sinking of the S.S. Central America about 200 miles east of Charleston, S.C., was one of the sea’s saddest but most forgotten events. Yet when the vessel went to the bottom 132 years ago this month, the tragedy shook America as much as the calamities that befell the Titanic in 1912 and the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. The nation spent the autumn of 1857 gripped by what Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper termed “The most unparalleled disaster that ever occurred on the sea.” It was indeed a rare story: A luxury steamship, loaded with people who got rich in the California gold rush plus 3 tons of the precious metal, plows into a hurricane that is making the ocean run “mountains high.” The ship springs a massive leak, and for 30 hours every man on board bails water, while women pray for the ordeal to end and children laugh as crockery cracks. Eventually, a small brig appears and takes on passengers—“women and children first”—until it can hold no more. Mary Swan hears her husband say, “Goodbye. I don’t know that I shall ever see you again.” He doesn’t. Some 420 people perish. Roughly 170 survive, many after tossing their bags of gold and hanging on to scraps of wood.

The story didn’t end there. New York banks, nearly bankrupt, had anxiously awaited the ship’s gold. The sinking caused bank failures across America, contributing to the panic of 1857. The salvaging of the wreck should enrich several dozen people around Columbus, Ohio. They invested $7 million in the Columbus-America Discovery Group, the high-tech partnership making the find. Their take could approach $500 million.

U.S. News and World Report, Sept. 25, 1989, p. 15