In the 1980s, an expedition discovered a ship full of gold sunken off the coast of North Carolina. The U.S.S. Central America was heading from Panama to New York by way of Cuba in mid-September, 1857. It sank in a category 2 hurricane that killed 425 of the 578 passengers. The millions of dollars in gold that it was carrying sank with it.
When discovered, those who found the treasures mostly hid them away due to litigation over who held the rightful claim to the gold. Now, in Reno, Nevada, the remaining treasures are on display. This includes gold ingots, jewelry, and coins, mysterious daguerreotypes of unknown women, and a pair of sailcloth pants, possibly the first prototype for jeans made by Levi Strauss.
The ship was laden with 9 tons of gold, according to the Daily Mail, which estimates at about $100 million to $150 million. This collection serves as a time capsule showcasing lives pre-Civil War, post-Gold Rush era. The photos of the treasures are included here.
“The U.S.S. Central America site is an accidental time capsule,” said Bob Evans, chief scientist and historian for the U.S.S. Central America collection. “And as such, it is a perfect glimpse into the time of these people. There were people from all over the country who had traveled to California and now we’re going home with their wealth,” he told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
The exhibit features hundreds of artifacts, so you can only imagine how much wealth was really on that ship when it sank. One singular gold bar is worth about $1 million now, and there are hundreds of ingots, gold and silver coins, and jewelry in the collection. For a look at more sunken treasure, check out this wreck that inspired “The Goonies.”
Ship Wrecks in 1857, Discovered in 1988, and Now Treasure is Finally Put On Display
Historically, the sinking of the U.S.S. Central America actually directly contributed to the Panic of 1857. Losing 30,000 pounds of gold in the ocean is enough to make anyone a bit nervous, but the banks in New York were awaiting a shipment of gold that was on the Central America. When it didn’t arrive, and news spread of the wreck, the economy went into meltdown. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the banks actually recovered.
As for the treasures themselves, they were initially kept in storage in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio. There was a decades-long ownership dispute, and the courts had to step in and issue an approved settlement. Captain Tommy Thompson first found the wreck in 1988, but greed surrounded the discovery in the aftermath that it tainted the sheer amazement of the find. Ohio investors funded the expedition with $12 million, but later said they were cheated out of the find.
Thompson was secretive, and wouldn’t divulge to the courts where he’d smuggled the gold. Apparently, he’d taken $2.5 million in gold coins. In a wild turn of events, U.S. Marshals caught him in Florida in 2015 and he’s still in federal prison today. He’s also charged a daily contempt fine of $1,000 until he gives up the location of the rest of the treasure.