The SS Central America and the 1857-S Double Eagle

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The SS Central America, captained by William Lewis Herndon, sunk off the coast of North Carolina on September 12th, 1857. She carried nearly 600 souls aboard, all of them looking forward to the end of a long journey and a reunion with family members. The ship carried the people of the California Gold Rush, and their gold as well. The journey first took them from California to Panama, where they crossed the isthmus and re-embarked on the Central America.


The Central America was a dual sidewheel steamship, the boiler room burned coal to move the great wheels and propel the ship through the sea. This design proved to be costly.


As the steamer left Panama, the seas were calm and the passengers were at ease. The ship had a stop-over at La Havana in Cuba and then started out on the final leg to New York City. A few days out from La Havana, on September 9th, the ship was caught up in a Category 2 Hurricane. Captain Herndon ordered the sails raised, to try and control the ship in the bucking sea, but the wind tore the great canvas to tatters. The ship was taking on water and the boiler room pumps, keeping the bilge at manageable levels, were in danger of stopping. The ship was losing steam pressure because the coal fires were not able to get hot enough. The pumps and the wheels eventually stopped.


To combat this, the male passengers and crew formed a bucket line, in which they bailed out the water from the boiler room in assembly line fashion. They kept up this incredible effort for almost 24 hours, when one man fell weak another was there to take his place. The women minded their children. Some traversed the bucket line offering food and wine to the grateful bailers.


Despite the heroic efforts, the water caught up with them and the boiler would never be reignited. The storm grew worse. Suddenly, a tiny ray of hope appeared- another ship the Marine. 153 passengers, mainly women and children, were ferried aboard by the two undamaged life boats remaining to the Central America.


The women were told that they should leave all their possessions behind, including the newly minted double eagles that many of them had hoped to build a new life with. It was suggested that they take with them two double eagles to be able to get back on their feet when they landed in Charleston, the Marine’s destination. There are stories of women bringing carpetbags full of double eagles to the main room everyone was huddled in, dumping them on the floor and leaving them for the taking. No one took any.


The ship was carrying between 13 and 15 tons of gold, in ingots, dust and coins. 5,000 of the 7,000 coins recovered were freshly made 1857-S Double Eagles.




The great ship finally foundered that evening and sank to the bottom, carrying nearly 425 people. Some people were rescued by a second ship the next day and were taken to Charleston. Captain Herndon went down with his ship.


The loss of the ship and the gold contributed to the Panic of 1857. The banks of the time, specifically in New York, were afraid of a recession and concurrent runs on the banks. They feared they would not have enough specie to back their currency. The Central America’s shipment would have greatly helped them.


The Central America was discovered in the late eighties and remains one of the more significant finds of underwater archaeology and numismatics today.


A good book on the subject is Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea.



Edited by Amanda
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This is kind of an aside, but did you know that 150 women and children perished when the Titanic sunk? This in an era that still believed in "women and children first", yet the co-owner of the Titanic was saved, instead of going down with the captain and the ship. Dunno why your post made me think of this though 893scratchchin-thumb.gif.

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I think it was the sinking ship James. wink.gif


I have another question about this post; I’m inferring from this post/book that some folks who struck gold in the Alaskan gold rush later had their gold minted in San Francisco in the form of double eagles? Is that correct?

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Nice hunk of history you've conveyed here, Amanda. Great coins, even as overpriced as they are for "sea salvaged" gold. Had a chance at one of these once for 2 grand that I passed on. The original owner had paid 6G for it. tongue.gif



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