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SS Central America: Ship of Gold Resurfaces

by | Jan 2, 2015 | 13 comments

Wreck of the SS Central America

Wreck of the SS Central America

Tommy Thompson revolutionized treasure salvage in 1987 when he and a brilliant team of “high tech nerds” figured out how to retrieve a valuable cargo of gold resting in 8,000 feet of water. The saga of the SS Central America, a paddlewheel steamer that sank in 1857, is packed with as much intrigue as a Clive and Dirk Cussler novel. Pirates, bureaucrats, bankers and monks (yes, those from a monastery) were just the tip of the iceberg of obstacles that loomed over Thompson and his Columbus America Group (CAG).

Why would someone who legitimately discovered millions of dollars worth of treasure aboard what some call a “ship of gold” simply walk away from it? That’s what Thompson did after many years of court battles and bureaucratic entanglements. One of the most sought after “missing persons” on a priority list at the U.S. Marshall’s office, he’s nowhere to be found…along with a vast amount of missing treasure. 

More than 25 years have passed since an oceanic engineer from Battelle Memorial Institute raised the cash, rented a boat and engaged the services of a 22-man crew to scour the ocean bottom almost 200 miles from shore. Toting research papers from the 1857 disaster, a probability scale, and a search map designed to cover 1,400 square miles, Thompson boarded a 165-foot former Louisiana oil rig supply boat converted to a support vessel.

WRECK OF THE CENTRAL AMERICA, Adrift on the Ocean. Engraving from "Harper's Weekly" October 3, 1857, courtesy Schindler's Antiques, Charleston, South Carolina

WRECK OF THE CENTRAL AMERICA, Adrift on the Ocean. Engraving from “Harper’s Weekly” October 3, 1857, courtesy Schindler’s Antiques, Charleston, South Carolina

Hardships were encountered from the start: heavy seas, bad weather, and bad food that eventually became no food except for chicken thawed and fried for every meal. Like a scene from the Caine Mutiny, one of the crew members was eating more than his share of the coveted popsicles from the freezer. He was hiding some of them deep inside the freezer beneath the chicken. Ninety degree temps topside spawned dogged work conditions, a yen to pop the popsicle thief and a strong desire to return home.

Forty days into scouring deep waters on the far side of the Gulf Stream—at a cost of $20,000 a day–the sonar “fish” sent up a graphic image. A mast, timbers and what appeared to be the remains of a ship’s sidewheel jutted out of a debris field that looked like a junkyard. The high tech nerds had discovered their “ship of gold.”

The 280-foot side-wheel steamer SS Central America was loaded with newly cast gold bars and coins from mints in San Francisco. It’s route to New York was a regular one. The gold shipment and hundreds of passengers boarded the vessel in San Francisco bound for the west coast of Panama. Here, they traveled by rail to Aspinwall on the east coast where Capt. William Lewis Herndon settled his guests aboard the mid-19th century wooden hull vessel, made a stop in Cuba, and set out for the five-day journey to New York.

Gold Bars

Gold Bars

Most of the passengers were in good spirits. It was September 8, 1857, the height of the California gold rush and many had their money belts, trunks and carpetbags stuffed with gold dust and shiny nuggets. Festivities ceased after four days at sea when a category two hurricane engaged the vessel with fierce winds and heavy seas. A leak in one of the seals between the paddlewheel shaft and the side of the ship shut down the boiler. With the fire out, steam pressure down and the bilge pumps failing, the 750-ton steamer bobbed around like an apple in a barrel. As hope waned aboard ship, the captain of the Marine, a two-masted brig transporting molasses from Cuba, spotted the foundering vessel and rescued 148 passengers, mostly women and children. Four hundred and twenty-three passengers and crew were lost in the worst maritme disaster of the time.

After the sonar detection, CAG was granted an Admiralty claim for ships lost in international waters where the team was working in deep water, 160 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina. A remote operated vehicle (ROV) nicknamed Nemo searched the bottom with a bucket and claw seeking proof that this truly was the Central America. After what seemed like an endless quest over thousands of targets in the debris field, the sonar sent up a crowning image. Thompson found the ship’s bell and Nemo retrieved it.

This was proof enough for the federal judge to grant the group 92 percent of any salvaged treasure. Soon, like caterpillars bursting out of cocoons, claimants emerged en mass. All but eight of the 39 insurance company claims were dismissed along with petitions from rival salvors. The Capuchin Monks’ plea declaring that salvor Jack Grim gave them salvage rights was rejected along with petitions from two universities.

Gold Coins

Gold Coins

CAG recovered three tons of gold coins, bars, dust and nuggets valued at $40 million. Some of the hundreds of $20 gold eagle coins, fresh from the San Francisco mint, fetched $10,000 each. One of the gold bars weighed 62 pounds. Salvage was suspended when the insurance companies appealed and the court reversed its decision. Everything remained in limbo until 1993 when rights reverted back to CAG in exchange for additional profits for the insurance companies.

Thompson never shared the wealth with his 160 backers, many of them from his hometown, Columbus, Ohio, who believed the ship of gold would make them rich. Thompson claimed the $2 million he got from the sale of hundreds of coins was spent on legal fees and bank loans. Investors responded by slapping a law suit on him, but by 2000 he had sold over 500 gold bars and thousands of coins to a California marketing group for $50 million. He fled when a warrant was issued for his arrest. By 2006, the one time American high tech hero was divorced and living with his girl friend in a mansion near Vero Beach, Florida, but they were long gone by the time U.S. Marshalls arrived.

Through 2012 summons continued to be sent out, but reverted to the court. Similar to  eccentric recluse Howard Hughes, Thompson vanished with only rumors of his whereabouts popping up sporadically. This prompted the court to finally appoint a new “salvor-in-possession.” The most likely and legitimate entity to take on the project has a fitting name: Odyssey Marine Exploration. Homer’s epic poem focused on hardships and adventures, high points in CAG’s attempts to salvage what some call the “billion dollar treasure.” Odyssey, a Tampa, Florida, based deepwater shipwreck discovery group, has an impressive record going back to 1994.

Percentages of recovery proceeds for the salvors, insurance companies and investors were worked out well in advance. The contract was awarded in March, 2014 and by the end of April, Odyssey had recovered 3,000 gold coins and 45 gold bars. Like the legendary Phoenix, the treasure of the Central America is rising again. An eminent Odyssey on the horizon, the ship of gold sails on with high hopes for the future.

13 Comments

  1. Good story! Why read fiction when reality has so much more complexity and intrigue.

  2. What did you think of Tommy Thompson going off with a lot of money made off the treasure and ignoring all of his investors, many of whom were his friends?

  3. Simply amazing what some people will do for money. Great article Prof. Boyd.

  4. Yes, Bob, you hit it on thead: “complexity & intrigue!” That’s what the Central America story is all about. I can’t wait for the next chapter. Cheers, E.

  5. Yes, Tommy Thompson made off with the money! Personally, I think he went off the “deep end.” His marriage failed, the attorneys and the banks were after him. The investors wanted some returns, rightfully so, and the court system, that once supportred him, was vascillating. He took off with his girl friend and a lot of money. It’s sad because eventually he will turn up, be arrested, and then what good would the money be? If there’s any left it will go to attorneys. The story is’t over. So far, it is not a happy one.

  6. Thank you Ethan. I am eagerly awaiting for the springtime and especially the summer, when Oddysey will return to the wreck. I think it will be surprising how much more treasure this experienced deep water oerations group will recover. Only time will tell.

  7. Did your read where fugitive Tommy Thompson was apprehended in Boca Raton, Florida recently, and will be extradited to Ohio?

  8. Yes, I just read about it. Isn’t it ironic that my article has been up only a short time, telling the Tommy Thompson and Central America story, and then he gets apprehended not long afterward. It surely is stange that he and his girl friend “hid” in a Hilton Hotel in Boca Raton, Florida! He might have gotten some sort of a thrill hiding out for two years right under the noses of the law. It will be interestng to see what happens next. Thanks for your interest.

  9. Thompson and his girlfriend, Alison Antekeier, appeared in Federal Court on April 9, 2015 in response to contempt of court charges stemming from a lawsuit by his former investors in 2006, both plead guilt to the charges. Thompson had previously tried to stop his transfer to Ohio siting medical issues including encephalitis and an overactive immune system.

    When they were found they had $425,380 in cash and evidence that the two had four storage units in Florida. The contents of those storage units has yet to be revealed. Thompson’s attorney states that the remainder of the $52 million obtained through salvage of the SS Central America was spent on legal fees and the actual cost of the retrieval of the gold.

  10. OMG – And this is how it all ends. 25 years after working with all these SS Central America guys as the lead Norfolk attorney legal secretary I am in disbelief. Just when my memory fails me slightly, “was this all a dream or did I really work on the biggest case on earth”. I Googled to find out after 25 years”. For whatever reason these events took place – (pressure, pressure, pressure & knowing when to walk away from it all no matter who you hurt sometimes makes sense.)

  11. Wow what a story from beginning to end sad it ended the way it did

  12. I just read the Book Gold in the Deep Blue Sea? Thinking Tommy Thompson was a hero.Then I googled Tommy Thompson to find out he is a criminal. What happened to this brilliant and very talented person. Was the gold cursed? or was Tommy hiding a dark side. He and his tech team did advance underwater exploration and salvage by decades for only 12,000.000 investment. So why did Tommy trough it all away.

  13. My great great Grandfather, Harry Bedell, was on that ship when it sank. Fascinating read. Thanks.

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