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Salvagers Recovering Bullion, Coins from Sunken Ship

BRUCE SMITHSeptember 14, 1989

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) _ Salvagers working off South Carolina have begun recovering golden booty of bars and coins valued at up to $1 billion from a steamship that sank in a hurricane 132 years ago, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

″It’s certainly the largest American treasure trove of all time,″ said Barry Schatz, a director of Columbus America Discovery Group, which located the wreck of the SS Central America three years ago.

The gold bars and coins aboard the SS Central America includes fortunes made during the California Gold Rush, said historian Judy Conrad of the Columbus America Discovery Group, which located the wreck three years ago.

″I never dreamed it would be like this,″ Thomas Thompson, a director of the group, told The Washington Post in a story published Thursday.

The paddle-wheel steamer was traveling from Panama to New York on Sept. 12, 1857, when it sank about 200 miles off the coast in 8,000 feet of water during a hurricane. The wreck claimed 425 lives; 153 people survived.

The Central America was carrying a regular monthly shipment of gold from the San Francisco Mint to New York banks via the Isthmus of Panama.

The estimated three tons of gold was valued at $1.2 million, based on the price of gold of about 90 cents an ounce in 1857. At today’s prices - about $360 a troy ounce - its estimated value would be up to $450 million.

In addition, riches belonging to passengers returning East after making their fortunes in California appear to have been aboard the ship, Schatz told The Associated Press during a ship-to-shore interview from aboard the recovery ship Arctic Discoverer, which has been at the salvage site since July.

Historians originally believed the ship sank off North Carolina, but research led the Columbus America group south. The Central America was located in 1986 and identified last year when the ship’s bell was raised.

The salvagers began bringing up the first artifacts last month, recovering about 500 pounds of gold so far, Schatz said.

In recent weeks, gold bars, including one weighing 62 pounds, rare ″double eagle″ coins valued at up to $20,000 each, and gold coins made by private California mints and valued at up to $15,000 have been recovered, said Pamela Adkins, a spokeswoman for the expedition.

At such values, ″it isn’t out of the realm of possibility″ that the overall value of the Central America’s cargo could swell to $1 billion, Thompson told the Post.

Thompson, a specialist in underwater mining and robotics, was on the expedition ship Arctic Discoverer on Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

Schatz said much depends on how much personal gold from the passengers is recovered.

″We don’t know the extent of the cargo of valuables,″ he said, adding it could be sizeable because passage on the steamer cost the equivalent of $6,000 in 1989 dollars.

He said much depends on how much of the treasure can be recovered, adding, ″We feel we can fully recover the site.″

″That billion-dollar estimate is probably the most frequently heard figure on the treasure’s value,″ said shipwreck expert E. Lee Spence of Sullivan’s Island.

He said, however, that an estimate of a couple hundred million dollars would be realistic, adding that that amount could be higher depending on how much gold the passengers were carrying.

Ms. Adkins said the salvors ″really don’t have a fix on the amount of passenger gold,″ but ″the value of it really depends on the quality of what they bring up, the rarity of what they find and demand.″

To recover the treasure, the salvage crew is using a computer-based imaging system that allows searchers to see objects far below the surface and an underwater vehicle equipped with video cameras and a high-precision robotic arm.

The expedition was financed by 106 investors, mostly from Columbus, Ohio, where the group is based, who put up their money in a limited partnership, the Columbus Dispatch reported Thursday.

Thompson, who put up no money, could receive 40 percent of the proceeds from sale of the recovered treasure, the newspaper said.

The salvagers found the wreckage with the assistance of a computer program that analyzed data gleaned from hundreds of newspaper articles about the Central America’s sinking, Ms. Conrad said. The expedition paid close attention to references to tides, currents and wind directions.

The expedition, which sailed out of Wilmington, N.C., in July and will stay off the coast until winter, will need several summers to recover the gold, Ms. Adkins said.

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