- Last Updated on Saturday, 05 January 2013 18:46
- Published on Wednesday, 18 August 2010 05:00
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Last week I described a chair from the wreck of the steamboat Wawaset, and three days later I was in Boston where I attended an exhibit on one of the most famous shipwrecks in American history, namely, that of the Central America, “The Ship of Gold,” on September 12, 1857. The ship was laden with gold coins and bars from the California fields following the celebrated discovery at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and the attendant Gold Rush the following year. In addition, 588 passengers were making the fateful journey from San Francisco to New York.
A ship from California had left for Panama with the cargo and passengers. From there the group crossed the isthmus, and then boarded the Central America for New York. The ship was only four years old, but 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina it struck a storm, began foundering on Sept. 11, and went down the following day.
The casualties were enormous; only 153 people survived, mainly thanks to a Swedish ship that was in the area, and came upon those struggling in the water. The tales of Captain William Lewis Herndon’s brave efforts to save the ship, over which he had assumed command in 1855, spread quickly, and a new city in Virginia was given his name, Herndon.
The gold went to the bottom with the good captain and his ship. There it remained until discovered by modern technology in the 1980s. Most of the gold has been brought up, including a 64-pound bar that was the focus of the Boston exhibit, along with some of the coins minted in San Francisco.
The treasure was brought to Norfolk where the discoverers met a number of lawsuits from insurance companies that had paid out claims on the wreck 130 years earlier. Ultimately, the courts decided in their favor, awarding them 90 percent of the treasure, which in today’s money would be $400 million.
I close by repeating an observation with which I ended last week’s item. The public is fascinated with shipwrecks, as witnessed by the crowds at the Boston exhibit on the Ship of Gold. A permanent exhibit in King George on the Wawaset, obviously not of the magnitude of that of the Central America, would be a great attraction for visitors to the area.