At a few minutes past 8:00 p.m., on September 12, 1857, a tremendous wave hit the SS Central America. She shuddered, timbers broke, and with hundreds of men huddled at the front of the ship and Captain Herndon on the starboard paddle-box, she slipped at a sharp angle beneath the waves.
Soon thereafter the SS Central America came to rest in the darkness 8,000 feet below the surface, about 160 miles offshore from Charleston, South Carolina. Passenger gold was scattered here and there around the ship’s hulk and the surrounding sea bottom. In the hold, still stored in the wooden boxes that had been carried along the Pacific Coast by the Sonora, the treasure of gold coins and ingots remained intact.
In 1983 after extensive research into vessels lost in deep water, Thomas G. (Tommy) Thompson decided to focus on finding the SS Central America. On Sunday, September 11, 1988 Thompson’s team lowered Nemo (an undersea robot specially designed for historic shipwreck excavation using archaeological techniques) over the side and into the water to begin its descent to the bottom. A few hours after the underwater robot reached the bottom, five of the team members sat in the control room deep inside the hull of the R/V Arctic Discoverer, staring at the images of the soundless seascape projected through the blue half-light of 12 video monitors.
After 5 hours, the empty screen began to fill with dark shadows. Slowly a definable image took shape, drifting eerily up from the bottom of the video screens. As Nemo’s cameras slid over the site, an unbelievable image scrolled by on the monitors: a rusting side-wheel lying flat in the eons-old mud. It was the one exceptionally distinguishing feature of the SS Central America.
By 1996, thirty-nine insurance companies filed suit, claiming that because they paid damages in the 19th century for the lost gold, they had the right to it. The team that found it argued that the gold had been abandoned. After a legal battle, 92% of the gold was awarded to the discovery team.
The total value of the recovered gold was estimated at $100–150 million. A recovered gold ingot weighing 80 lb (36 kg) sold for a record $8 million and was recognized as the most valuable piece of currency in the world at that time. Thompson was sued in 2005 by several of the investors who had provided $12.5 million in financing, and in 2006 by several members of his crew, over a lack of returns for their respective investments. Thompson went into hiding in 2012, and was located in January 2015, along with assistant Alison Antekeier, by US Marshals, and has been extradited to Ohio, to provide an accounting of the expedition profits.
In March 2014, a contract was awarded to Odyssey Marine Exploration to conduct archeological recovery and conservation of the remaining shipwreck.
In April 2016, ARI and SHIP (Sealife Habitat Improvement Project) will deploy the Arctic Discoverer on her final mission. Sinking the vessel to create an artificial reef in Martin County, FL.
Courtesy for history provided by Gary Kinder’s “Ship of Gold in a Deep Blue Sea”