SS Central America, sometimes called the Ship of Gold, was a 280-foot (85 m) sidewheel steamer that steamed between Central America and the eastern coast of the United States during the 1850s. Originally named the SS George Law, 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 September 9, the ship was caught up in a Category 2 hurricane while off the coast of the Carolinas. By September 11, 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. 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.
Commander William Lewis Herndon, a distinguished officer who had served during the Mexican-American War and explored the Amazon Valley, was captain of the Central America. Commander Herndon went down with his ship. Two US Navy ships were later named USS Herndon in his honor, as was the town of Herndon, Virginia.
Several books were written about this historic ship. The most famous book is America's Lost Treasure, a pictorial chronicle of the sinking and recovery.
The total value of the recovered gold was estimated at $100-150 million. A recovered gold ingot weighing 80 pounds sold for a record $8 million USD and is recognized as the most valuable piece of currency in the world.