Sinking of the SS Central America

SS Central America, sometimes called the Ship of Gold, was a 280-foot (85 m) sidewheel steamer that operated between Central America and the eastern coast of the United States during the 1850s.

She was originally named the SS George Law, after Mr. George Law of New York. The ship sank in a hurricane in September 1857, along with 400 passengers and crew and 30,000 pounds of gold, contributing to the Panic of 1857.

On 9 September, the ship was caught up in a Category 2 hurricane while off the coast of the Carolinas. By 11 September, the 105 mph (165 km/h) winds and heavy surf had shredded her sails, she was taking on water, and her boiler was threatening to go out. A leak in one of the seals to the paddle wheels sealed her fate, and, at noon that day, her boiler could no longer maintain fire. Steam pressure dropped, shutting down both the pumps keeping the water at bay and the paddle wheels that kept her pointed into the wind as the ship settled by the stern. The passengers and crew flew the ship's flag upside down (a universal sign of distress) to try to signal a passing ship. No one came.

A bucket brigade was formed and her passengers and crew spent the night fighting a losing battle against the rising water. During the calm of the hurricane, attempts were made to get the boiler running again, but these all failed. The second half of the storm then struck. The ship was now on the verge of foundering. Without power, the ship was carried along with the storm, so the strong winds would not abate. The next morning, two ships were spotted, including the brig Marine. 153 people, primarily women and children, managed to make their way over in lifeboats. However, the ship remained in an area of intense winds and heavy seas that pulled the ship and most of her company away from rescue and eventually took the ship and many of the roughly 425 people still on board to the bottom at around 8 pm that night. A Norwegian bark, Ellen, rescued an additional fifty from the waters. Another three were picked up over a week later in a lifeboat.

The SS Central America carried 491 passengers from Panama towards New York when she was caught in a mammoth hurricane in 1857. On board was a large shipment of gold from California.

The sinking of the SS Central America in 1857 resulted in the greatest loss of life on a commercial passenger vessel of the nineteenth century. The SS Central America sinking and loss of the ships considerable cargo of gold treasure aboard, significantly contributed to the financial panic which subsequently rocked the United States.

Friday, September 11, 1857: In the second day of a hurricane the ship sprang a leak at 9 a.m. Passengers were ordered to assist the crew in bailing. The ship sank at about 8 p.m. on Saturday, September 12, about 160 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, drowning a total of 426 passengers and crew, including Captain William Lewis Herndon.