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Ship's Recovery Spurs Another Gold Rush

History: A weighty book details the 1857 sinking of a steamship filled with California gold, and its recovery off South Carolina in 1987.


WOLFEBORO, N.H. — Caught in a vicious hurricane in 1857, the steamship Central America went to the bottom of the Atlantic with more than 400 people and a vast treasure of California gold.

More than a century later, the depths surrendered the gold, more than $100 million of it. It was the end of a long mystery involving the worst peacetime disaster at sea in American history, but the beginning of the story for historian and coin scholar Q. David Bowers.

He's written a weighty book containing an abundance of information about the discovery of gold; how it transformed California and the country; and how the Central America was lost, then found, rekindling a second gold rush of sorts that continues today.

"A California Gold Rush History" tells the stories of people--in their own words--who headed west by wagon, ship and train in hopes of making a fortune. A few succeeded; most failed. Some made fortunes without digging even an ounce of gold.

People tell of passing hundreds of graves next to dusty trails, of sailing past shipwrecks at the rocky tip of South America, of swift justice for lawbreakers, of crews abandoning ship in San Francisco harbor to search for gold.

"Among the deserters from my squadron are some of the best petty officers and men having only a few months to serve," Thomas Catesbury Jones, commander of the Navy's Pacific Squadron, wrote to the secretary of the Navy in December 1848.

One cargo ship captain awoke the morning after anchoring to discover his entire crew gone.

Bowers, president of the Bowers and Merena Gallery in Wolfeboro, has been in the rare coin business for 50 years.

In addition to a lifetime of personal research, he used material gathered by researchers from period newspapers, ledgers, diaries and other sources.

"I feel like I've climbed Mt. Everest," he said.

The 1,055-page work weighs 11 pounds. The average 49er, so named for the mass migration of prospectors in 1849, found much less in gold, Bowers said.

Published by the California Gold Marketing Group, the book is an adventure story, a political story, a meticulous account of a tumultuous era, a window on human nature and an expert's record of gold bars preserved on the Central America only by the disaster that destroyed it. The book's $500,000 in research was financed through sales of the treasure.

Before being shipped east to be made into coins, most of the gold dust and nuggets found in California were melted and molded into brick-shaped ingots. "None were saved that anyone knows about," Bowers said.

So the more than 500 ingots and 8,000 coins found in the Central America in 1987 drew great interest among collectors and others yearning for a piece of the Gold Rush.

Legal battles with insurance companies tied up the treasure for years, but most of it now has been sold. Included was the largest known ingot from the California Gold Rush, a 10-inch-long brick that sold for a reported $7 million in November.

The "Eureka ingot," worth $17,000 in 1857, was part of a breathtaking sight revealed by remote cameras that first scanned the wreckage off South Carolina in the late 1980s.

"The gold was stacked on the ocean floor like brownies and loaves of bread," Bowers wrote. "Further along, they found piles of coins spread amid the wreckage, heaped in towers, and spilling into what looked like a frozen waterfall."

The book easily could have dealt with a small slice of the Gold Rush, such as the sinking of Central America or its rediscovery. But Bowers said he tried to cover it all, because coins and ingots are more than meets the eye.

Take any ingot from the Central America. A miner found some gold dust or nuggets, brought them to San Francisco, deposited them and got a receipt. The gold was made into an ingot and, on Aug. 20, 1857, loaded onto a steamer named the SS Sonara headed for Panama.

There, the ingot traveled by rail 48 miles to the Atlantic, where it was loaded aboard the Central America.

On Sept. 12, 1857, a day after being damaged in a hurricane, the ship sank about 160 miles off Charleston, S.C., in 8,000 feet of water. More than 400 people died.

"This ingot got tossed back and forth in the storm and finally sank with the ship," Bowers said. "This little ingot has been there. To me, that's endlessly fascinating."

The gold sat on the ocean floor for 130 years.

Bowers' company coordinated marketing the treasure and is one of several firms that sold it to collectors, history buffs and museums. An estimated 5% of the treasure remains for sale.

Personally, he is thrilled just to have been alive for the discovery of the Central America and the recovery of its gold.

"Generations of scholars of the Gold Rush and coins were born and died and never saw these coins," he said.

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