From The Ocean Deep To The Courtroom: A Tale Of Sunken Treasure

May 7, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 7:59 am

When the SS Central America sank in 1857, it took down tons of gold with it — enough gold that the shipwreck contributed to a financial panic. And when the wreck was found, decades of legal battles ensued over rights to the recovered treasure. Gary Kinder, author of Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, tells the fraught tale of shipwreck and reclaimed gold.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Now, a story about a shipwreck and a sunken treasure. When the SS Central America went down in a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina in 1857, it was carrying tons of gold - enough gold that the loss of that ship contributed to the financial panic of 1857.

A recovery operation in 1988 found the wreckage. The ocean floor was described as carpeted with gold - gold everywhere, like a garden. Some of that gold was brought up, worth many millions, but legal fights among investors and insurers followed, lasting decades.

Long story short, a new exploration team won the rights to recover the rest of the sunken treasure and last month, the team hauled up five gold bars weighing 66 pounds. They hope to complete the rest of the recovery by September.

Gary Kinder wrote a book about the SS Central America titled "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea." He joins me now to fill in more of the story. Gary, welcome to the program.

GARY KINDER: Thank you, Melissa. It's nice to be here.

BLOCK: Why was this 280-foot long steamship carrying so much gold back in 1857? Where was it from?

KINDER: Well, it was coming from the California gold rush. There were steamers on the West Coast and on the East Coast and they regularly would leave San Francisco and steam down to Panama, and then the passengers would cross over and pick up the Atlantic steamer and back up to New York. It was about a three-week trip. And every one of these ships that left San Francisco was carrying anywhere from roughly $1 million to $2 million in gold at 1857 prices.

BLOCK: Wow. And so in terms of this ship, we haven't even mentioned the human toll when this ship went down, 425 people died. How much gold is it believed to have been carrying?

KINDER: There were three tons of what was called the consigned commercial shipment. These were several thousand coins that were minted in the San Francisco mint. And then there were several hundred bars, also. These were being shipped by businesses, Levi Strauss for instance. There were rumors that miners, on their persons and on their rucksacks, were carrying another three tons. And there has been rumored for a long time, and there's some evidence to support it, that there was what's referred to as a secret army shipment of another 15 tons of gold. So altogether, if all of that gold is there, that would be a total of 21 tons of gold on that ship.

BLOCK: And the value of that would incur dollars would be how much?

KINDER: It could be several tens of millions. It could be several hundreds of millions of dollars.

BLOCK: Mr. Kinder, have you seen any of the gold that was brought up back in the '80s?

KINDER: Oh, yeah, I've held it. It's really a work of art. These gold bars, they're anywhere from the size of - they call them chocolates, the same size of a chocolate, to brownies, to house bricks. They are marked. And that's what's so beautiful about them; they have stamped into them the weight, the value at the time, crest of the owner. They have the fine - it's f-i-n-e - which is the percentage of gold that exists in that bar. When you multiply that times the weight, et cetera, and you end up getting the value that time

BLOCK: Well, it's intriguing to think about the fact that more than 150 years after this ship went down, that gold is still there on the ocean floor and will be brought back up.

KINDER: Yes. It's about 150 years and gold is inert. And so when it sits on the bottom of the ocean, nothing happens to it. There might be some rust from the huge steam engines that the Central America had, but that's easily removed and the gold itself is just as shiny and lustrous as it was the night it went down.

BLOCK: Gary Kinder, thank you so much.

KINDER: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Gary Kinder, his book is "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.