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.
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,
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.
passengers on board enjoyed
the ocean, while others
in the main lounge or
where it was popular to
cards, chess, checkers, and
to read, and to
pass the time. Some
around the deck or relaxed
chairs. Food was served at
and those in first-class
could partake of wine and
delicacies. A spirit of
prevailed, as passengers
forward to returning to the
Coast, a home they had been
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 Steamship
Operating under 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
the late 19th century, weather forecasting was not
scientific. Little was known about tropical
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
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 26½
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.
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
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.
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