CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – A deep-sea exploration company is seeking to recover a lucrative haul of gold aboard the shipwreck of the SS Central America nearly 160 years after it sank off the coast of South Carolina in a hurricane.
The work that began this week follows a long court battle over treasure salvaged from the shipwreck in the late 1980s by a pioneering young engineer whose efforts were detailed in the 1998 best-selling book “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea.”
The 280-foot (85-meter) steamship was carrying as much as 21 tons of gold ingots, freshly minted gold coins and raw gold from the California mines, as well as the personal wealth and belongings of its 477 passengers, most of whom died when the ship sank in September 1857.
The gold that is thought to remain on the ocean floor was valued at $760,000 in 1857 but would be worth millions today, according to Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., a company that won the contract to revisit the shipwreck.
Gold recovered from the ship by a team led by Ohio engineer Tommy Thompson, which discovered the wreck using sonar and robotic technology he developed, became the focus of an extended legal fight over rights to the treasure and return for investors. Thompson has been a fugitive since failing to appear in court in 2012.
Last year, a court in Ohio appointed a receiver who will distribute some of the profits from the new exploration to former investors. In March, the receiver awarded Odyssey the contract to revisit the shipwreck, which lies around 160 miles (260 km) offshore and about 7,200 feet (2,200 meters) below the surface.
“We know that the wreck was only partially excavated, only about 5 percent of the site,” Mark Gordon, Odyssey’s president, said on Monday.
The company’s research vessel, the Odyssey Explorer, sailed from Charleston, South Carolina, last week with 41 crew members for a project Gordon estimated will cost between $5 million and $10 million.
The Central America steamship ran between Panama and New York, carrying prospectors and their fortunes made in the California Gold Rush. Historians say the ship’s sinking triggered a New York banking panic that was part of a larger U.S. financial crisis known as the Panic of 1857.
The value of the gold found will depend on what form it is in, Gordon said. For example, $20 Double Eagle gold coins fetch $5,000 apiece on average from collectors.