Man Overboard: The Story of the SS Central America

Michelle Sullivan
An artist's depiction of the sinking of the Central America in 1857

Its treasure, touted as America's greatest, is the once-lost vessel's claim to fame, but the tragic story of the SS Central America's demise is a tale of heroism and a captain's valiant effort to save his ship.

The 278-foot-long, wooden-hulled Central America was commissioned in 1853 by the U.S. Mail Steamship Co. It transported passengers and commercial cargo between the East Coast and Central America, often completing the last leg of the journey between San Francisco and New York.

On Sept. 3, 1857, the Central America departed from the Atlantic coast of Panama carrying a large commercial shipment of California gold and hundreds of passengers who'd arrived in Panama from San Francisco earlier that day and taken a train across the small country.

After five days at sea, the steamer entered the fringes of a hurricane. High winds and violent waves throttled the ship and, on Sept. 11, the crew discovered a leak. Within hours, seawater doused the fires in the boilers, extinguishing the ship's power source. Captain William Lewis Herndon, a commander in the U.S. Navy, ordered all men on board to bail water, declaring the ship would surely sink unless the storm abated. As the storm raged on the next day, a small sailing vessel passed into view, and Herndon and his crew spent the afternoon helping women and children into lifeboats and launching them to the brig Marine. One hundred people made it safely to the rescue boat and were delivered to shore.

"[Herndon] was a southern gentleman who commanded a northern vessel carrying California gold," says Bob Evans, a geologist and historian who helped discover the wreck with Columbus-America Discovery Group in 1988. "And order was maintained on this vessel. This was one of those shining moments in history where 'women and children first' actually worked."

As the ship slowly sank deeper, the men continued to fight the rising water. Finally, just after dusk on Sept. 12, the Central America surrendered to the sea, bringing tons of gold to the bottom of the ocean and casting 478 men into the raging waters.

Six hours later, 50 people who stayed afloat were rescued by a passing boat. More than a week later, three men who had constructed a makeshift raft were also plucked from the ocean. In all, 153 people survived the sinking of the Central America. But 425, including Herndon, died that day.

"You could only imagine the despair they were going through as this ship sank deeper and deeper," Evans says. "It is one of the most harrowing and greatest tales of survival at sea."