Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Last Voyage of the SS Central America

by C.J. Chase

The 1848 discovery of gold in California created a migration of epic proportions. “Forty-Niners” raced to get there before the all the best gold fields had been claimed by others. About half of the new arrivals came by sea, the other half by land. With the Panama Canal still 50 years in the future, the sea route required either a 5-8 month voyage around South America or a ship to Panama’s Atlantic shore, a trek via mule and canoe through the jungle, and the hope of a finding a north-bound ship (with available space) on Panama’s Pacific coast. With hundreds of miles of mountains, prairies and deserts inhabited by sometimes hostile natives between the Eastern states and the Pacific coast, the overland route was equally arduous. If you are as old as I am, you may remember singing “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” a folk ballad about a Pennsylvania couple traveling overland to California.

Despite the hardships, thousands survived the journey. In less than two years, the non-native population of California swelled by a factor of 100. Just two-and-a-half years after the discovery of the first nugget, California became the 31st state, and the first ever non-contiguous state in the United States of America.

With thousands of people now traveling back and forth between the East Coast to the West, foresighted investors established a 48-mile railroad across the isthmus of Panama. A journey that had taken half a year could now be done in a month. And that was how the SS Central America came to be carrying nearly 600 people and 15 tons of gold on a fateful September day in 1857.

This lithograph of the SS Central America appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in 1857

The passengers and cargo had begun their voyage in San Francisco on August 20 aboard the SS Sonora. They reached Panama City on September 3 and traveled by rail across the isthmus to Aspinwall (now Colon) where they boarded the Central America.  Because the Central America was a mail steamer, she was under contract to the US government and captained by a US Navy officer. Commander William Lewis Herndon, a native of Virginia, was already something of a naval hero, known for his work in the field of navigation and his explorations of the Amazon River.

After a brief and uneventful stop in Havana on the 7th, the Central America steamed toward her final destination of New York City. Alas, within two days of the ship’s departure, the wind began to pick up. Conditions worsened throughout the next day. By Friday, September 11, now in the throes of a category 2 hurricane, the ship began to take on water. The “bucket brigade” of passengers and crew could not bail water fast enough, and eventually the water extinguished the Central America’s boiler fires, leaving the ship adrift off the Carolina coast. On Saturday morning, Captain Herndon ordered the flag to be flown upside down—the international signal of a ship in distress.

About 1:00 pm on Saturday, the crew sighted the Marine, and Herndon ordered the lifeboats made ready. It took numerous trips (the storm had wrecked some of the lifeboats) to move the women and children first. Unfortunately, the storm was pushing the badly damaged Marine further away by the minute, and trips between the two ships lengthened in time. Only 109 passengers and crew made it onto the Marine.

On board the Central America, men began making preparations for the ship to go down by creating crude rafts from pieces of the ship. A little past 8:00 Saturday night, one last wave crashed against her, and she sank into the sea. Only 153 of her passengers and crew survived. Herndon, who went down with the ship, was posthumously lauded for his calm command during the crisis. In 1858, residents near a new railroad depot in Herndon’s native Virginia needed a name for their post office, and they decided to honor their local hero. Today a suburb of Washington, DC, the town of Herndon, Virginia is a major technology center in its own right, home to some of the top names in hi-tech industries.

Before I end, there is one more fascinating twist to the SS Central America story. William Herndon left behind a wife and a twenty-year-old daughter Ellen (called Nell by her family). The family had only recently moved from Virginia to New York at the time of his death. One of Nell’s cousin introduced her to his roommate Chester. Chester and Nell married in 1859, and the couple had 3 children, two of which survived to adulthood. Chester became active in New York politics, but tragically, Nell died of pneumonia in 1880, just months before her husband was elected Vice President of the United States. Upon the assassination of James Garfield in 1881, Chester Alan Arthur became the 21st President of the United States. He kept a photograph of Nell in the White House's family quarters, and he never remarried. Every day throughout his presidency, he had fresh flowers placed before Nell's picture. 

Library of Congress photograph of Chester Alan Arthur, 21st President of the United States


  1. Sad. And if you look at his eyes, you can see the sadness there. I love that he put flowers by her picture everyday. Thanks for adding that last paragraph, CJ. It made me smile.

  2. Awww, so sweet. I didn't know that about Arthur.

    Thanks for this, CJ.

  3. Yes, Suzie. All around pretty sad.

    Arthur was diagnosed with a terminal kidney disease while president, so he didn't run for re-election. He died shortly afterward.

    What's interesting is that he was really into the big time machine party politics of that era -- and yet as president, he's best known for signing and enforcing the Civil Service Act to counteract the corruption of the spoilage system. Maybe knowing that he was dying let him take risks he might not otherwise have done.

  4. DeAnna, Arthur's one of those overlooked presidents, isn't he? Maybe because he was only president 3 1/2 years. Wouldn't you love to do a quiz and find out how many young people even know he was a president? Um, maybe not!

  5. Oh, how sad! Poor Chester, and poor people aboard the ship.

    What happened to the gold?

    Interesting post. I never knew this story!

  6. Susie, the ship went down in deep water, ~150 east of Cape Hatteras. (Cape Hatteras is called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" because so many ships have gone down there.)

    The ship was finally located and some of the gold salvaged in the 1980's once there was technology to locate it in deep water. You can buy some of the gold pieces that were on board -- if you've got the money!

  7. fascinating story with such sad twists. I have to say I at least recognized Chester Arthur's photo!
    does that count?

    I knew he was a bachelor president but not why.

    I have a map of the shipwrecks off Cape Hatteras and now this one is going to be of particular interest.

    Given a choice would you go for the cross country trip via wagon train or the sail - two ships and a land crossing in the jungle?

  8. Oh, man. Difficult choice, Deb. If only the sea route was a cruise. I think I'm more of a travel-by-ship person. But from what I read, it was pretty bad. If you took a ship all the way around the Horn, the food and water went bad. And if you did the jungle crossing, you couldn't be guaranteed space on a ship on the other side, so you could get stuck in Panama City for an unspecified amount of time.

    I'm thinking there's a reason why my family did rush to the California gold fields.

    Yes, I think recognizing Arthur's picture counts. The other bit of trivia is that he was succeeded by Cleveland -- who was a bachelor when elected. Arthur's sister served as his hostess for a while, and then I think it was Cleveland's sister who did the honors for him. It was the only time in American history where the First Lady role was filled by someone other than a president's wife in back-to-back administrations.

  9. Being a scuba diver, I'm familiar with the ship, but not the extra history of the Captain's family. I actually recognize and know about the President, but like Debra, not why he was a bachelor. Wow, such a romantic thing of him. I've always been fascinated by the Presidents, although I still have a hard time naming them in order. *heh*

    cool post! with a bit of "awwww..." thrown in for Chester's love for his wife.

  10. Wow, that's fascinating. 15 tons of gold? Yikes! That's quite the load.

    And yes, I was thinking of you DebH when I was reading this because of your diving experience. But only some of the gold was recovered? Let's see... 15 tons of gold at $1500 an ounce give or take... *gleam. LOL

    Thank you, CJ. I was unaware of this lesser known president and really appreciate that you shared his story with us.

  11. Oh, and CJ... I love the “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” video. Thank you for that refreshing bit of Americana.


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