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'Treasure!' Part 5

The story so far: Tommy Thompson and the Columbus America Discovery Group have found the SS Central America in 8,500 feet of water at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

September 22, 2006|By Jennifer James | Times Staff Writer
  • Freshly minted 1857 gold coins were among the treasures retrieved from the S.S. Central America.
Freshly minted 1857 gold coins were among the treasures retrieved from… (Henry Groskinsky )

"Americans, both as individuals and as a nation, are characterized as spirited, optimistic, visionary, forward-thinking, adaptable, and entrepreneurial, traits symbolized by the pioneers, adventurers, and nation builders aboard the Central America." — "America's Lost Treasure," by Tommy Thompson


FINDING the gold was only one challenge. Now the ship's treasure had to be brought to the surface.

To retrieve it, Thompson and former colleague Don Hackman built what Thompson called "the ultimate erector set," a robot called Nemo. This 12,000-pound machine had lights, cameras and long spidery arms with manipulators at the ends. The manipulators were like hands. They could bend and move and pick things up. They were good for lifting heavy beams and trunks.

The first thing they recovered was the wedding trunk of Addie and Ansel Easton, filled with clothes and books.

The ship was a time capsule into mid-19th century America, containing personal items such as photographs, jewelry, books and newspapers — all intact. Historians were invited to study these finds.

The Columbus America Discovery Group also discovered new plants and animals. A species of octopus that was videotaped climbing aboard one of Nemo's spidery arms was one of them. Scientists came from all over the world to study these plants and animals.

To Thompson, the word "treasure" did not mean just gold and money. The real treasure was the knowledge obtained from his discovery.

Did he find the gold he was seeking at the bottom of the ocean? Yes!

In his words: "spectacular gold bridges of gold ingots … piles of coins heaped in towers and seemingly spilling into frozen waterfalls … [It] looked like something out of a fairy tale beyond one's wildest imagination."

The gold was in five forms: dust, nuggets, chips from the mines, coins and ingots. (An ingot is gold that has been melted into a brick.)

Thompson described the pioneers aboard the SS Central America as "spirited, optimistic, visionary, forward-thinking, adaptable, and entrepreneurial."

He symbolizes these traits as well, so it is fitting and inevitable that he would be the one to discover the treasure of the SS Central America.

Author's note: To learn more about Tommy Thompson and the Columbus America Discovery Group, read "America's Lost Treasure" by Tommy Thompson and "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea" by Gary Kinder. Thanks to Gary Kinder for his help with this story.

This story will be on The Times' website at

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