The gold came from the California gold fields in 1857 – an accumulation of 30,000 pounds of gold, worth today over 633 million dollars. The gold was owned by many different people, who carried it, individually, in person, down the California and Mexican coasts from San Francisco to Panama. After that, the gold was carried about 50 miles from the Pacific side of Panama to the Gulf of Mexico side.
Those of you who heard our Listen2Read audio-book “Death Valley in ‘49” remember that the author, William Lewis Manly, traveled this route. He carried his gold in a money belt, next to his pistol and he didn’t sleep. When I recorded the book, I remember thinking how little has been written of this early Panamanian era and how Manly had contributed to our historical knowledge.
Everything in Panama changed with the establishment of a railroad across the Isthmus in 1855. Two years later, in 1857, crossing to the Gulf of Mexico by train was standard operating procedure.
Anchored on the Gulf side, at Colon, was the S.S. Central America, a 280-foot side-wheeler steamship. It was waiting to transport the gold, 477 passengers and 101 crew members away from the malaria infested jungles of Panama to the more sophisticated climes of, first, Havana Cuba, and eventually, New York City, in the United States of America.
New York Bankers were counting on the gold to cover their bets. The American economy had over-expanded and, as with recent events in today’s financial world, certain investments that looked like a sure thing, weren’t a sure thing after all.
As businesses failed, people swarmed to the banks to withdraw their money. In those days, the money was not paper but real gold and silver. There was a financial Panic in 1857. That shipment of gold was desperately needed.
On September 3, 1857, the S.S. Central America left Panama. Operated by steam, built just five years earlier, the ship also carried sails, just in case. It stopped in Havana and then continued on its way north toward New York City.
On September 9, 1857 a hurricane struck the ship 160 miles off the Carolinas, with 105 mile an hour winds that tore the sails to shreds. There was a sudden leak; the boiler couldn’t maintain steam pressure and the ship foundered in the water, out of control, directionless, at the mercy of the storm. Taking on water with no power for the water pumps, the ship was doomed.
By September 11, 1857, 153 passengers, mostly women and children, had been placed in lifeboats and made it to safety. Tragically, a total of 425 people died in what was to be one of the great maritime disasters of that time.
As a consequence of the sinking, the gold and silver didn’t get to New York, and the Panic of 1857 continued. But it was a financial panic of the Northern States. The South was untouched. It is said by some that the South’s view of a weak North may have prompted it’s leaders toward more risky decisions in 1861, leading to the Civil War.
In any event, all that gold and silver that went to the bottom of the sea in 1857 is still at the bottom of the sea – mostly, except for 1,000 ounces of gold.
About a week ago, those thousand ounces were removed from the wreckage at the bottom of the sea by Odyssey Marine Exploration, a private company that has been given an exclusive license to explore and stake a claim to the treasure. How exactly the treasure will be divided is being negotiated. The ship was insured in 1857. There are present day insurance companies that have ties to those 1857 insurance companies.
It has been decided that Odyssey will receive 81% of the profits for its efforts. So, if you want your share of treasure, you should know that Odyssey is listed on OMEX with a recent price quote for a share of $2.06…if you think it’s a sure thing.