Fortunes in hand, many speculators decided to return to their homes
on the East Coast. The route taken most frequently took
passengers by boat to Panama City, where they
crossed the isthmus to Aspinwall by train and boarded a ship bound for New York, often by way of Cuba.
On August 20, 1857, several hundred passengers in San Francisco boarded
the SS Sonora, of the Pacific Mail Steamship Line, and headed south toward Panama City. Aboard was
over 1.6 million dollars in (1857 value) gold—thousands of freshly minted 1857-S double eagles, some earlier $20
coins, ingots, and gold
in other forms. Some of the double eagles were stacked in long rows or columns and nestled in wooden
boxes. Elsewhere around the ship, passengers had their own treasure—purses and boxes reflecting their
success in the land of gold, the new El Dorado.
Some passengers on board enjoyed
watching the ocean, while others
stayed in the main lounge or
saloon, where it was popular to
play cards, chess, checkers, and
backgammon, to read, and to
otherwise pass the time. Some
walked around the deck or relaxed
in chairs. Food was served at
intervals, and those in first-class
cabins could partake of wine and
epicurean delicacies. A spirit of
happiness prevailed, as passengers
looked forward to returning to the
East Coast, a home they had been
away from for some time.
In due course, the SS Sonora landed at Panama City, and the
passengers disembarked. The treasure was handled separately and was put aboard a special baggage
car on the Panama Railroad, a 48-mile line that had been completed in 1855 and had facilitated
the crossing of the isthmus in about three or four hours—quite a change from paddling and tramping
through the danger-filled jungles for several days.
When the train arrived in Aspinwall, the passengers alighted, and
the treasure was carefully transported to storage.
The next leg of the trip was aboard the side-wheel steamer SS Central
America, earlier known as the SS George Law, now on its forty-fourth voyage for the Atlantic Mail
federal mail contract, the steamers of the Atlantic and the Pacific had United
States Navy captains at the helm, men of proven reputation and experience. Capt. William Herndon
commanded the Central America.
In early September 1857, the gold treasure was carefully packed
aboard, passengers found their cabins and berths, and all were ready for the pleasant voyage to
New York City. The time of year was ideal for travel.
A few days later, on September 7, 1857, the ship docked in the
harbor of Havana, a popular stop for buying souvenirs and exploring the sights of the town. The
trip continued to be pleasant, with sunny skies overhead, puffy clouds here and there, and smooth
In the late 19th century, weather forecasting was not scientific.
Little was known about tropical storms,their frequency, and how to predict them. Distinguishing
between a gale or small storm and the beginnings of a major hurricane was nearly impossible. Few
people knew the history of the area, including the fact that in the years 1715 and 1733,
devastating hurricanes had sent virtually entire fleets of Spanish galleons to the bottom of the
sea off the coast of Florida.
At 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, September 9, the ship’s second officer
noted that the ship had gone 286 nautical miles in the preceding 26˝ hours, and that there was a
fresh breeze kicking up swells. Perhaps a storm was coming. In any event, there was no alarm.
This was a large ship, well equipped, and with an experienced crew capable of handling any storm.
As the hours passed, the breeze intensified to a strong wind, finally
reaching gale force. The SS Central America was tossed about in the waves, but continued on her
course. Card games, reading, and other amusements in the finely appointed parlors came to an end.
Many seasick passengers huddled in their cabins that afternoon and into the night, waiting for the
wind to subside and looking forward to a bright morning.
The expected calm did not come. By daybreak on Thursday, conditions had worsened, wind was
screaming through tattered sails and rigging, passengers remained below deck, and the SS Central
America was in the middle of a raging hurricane. Throughout the day the fury of the storm and
wind-whipped waves increased, but the ship remained watertight and the engines functioned properly.
Instead of subsiding, the fury of the storm continued to increase. High winds and waves
wracked the ship, and it was all the captain could do to keep the bow headed into the waves.