The Sinking of the Ship of Gold

Addie Easton

Addie Easton

In the years before the transcontinental railroad spanned the nation, the quickest and safest method of travel between the west and east coast occurred by sea, with a short land connection across the Isthmus of Panama. On August 20, 1857, newlyweds Ansel and Addie Easton boarded the SS Sonora in San Francisco, bound for Panama; between his burgeoning furniture business and her family inheritance, Ansel and Addie could afford an expensive whirlwind tour to Panama, New York, and eventually Europe. After the Sonora landed, the couple embarked on a short train ride to the Panamanian city of Colon, and then boarded the SS Central America, whose itinerary included a short stop in Havana before heading to its ultimate destination of New York City.

The Central America was a 280-foot coal-powered steamship with a wooden superstructure, powered by coal furnaces driving twin massive sidewheel paddles for ocean voyage. Captain William Lewis Herndon, a 43-year-old veteran of the US Navy whose slight and balding appearance belied his 29 years of naval experience, commanded the ship; although September is hurricane season in the Caribbean, Captain Herndon remained confident in the abilities of his ship and crew to deliver an uneventfully routine journey. On September 3, the ship departed with over 500 passengers of varying levels of wealth, none of whom knew that, in addition to the several hundred tons of anthracite coal required to fuel the engines, the cargo hold of the Central America carried a secret shipment of about two tons of government gold heading for the vaults of New York banks.

After an overnight stay in Havana, the Central America began its trip up the east coast of America under sunny skies on Tuesday, September 8. Many of the passengers, including Addie, spent the bulk of their daylight hours in their staterooms rather than suffer through the intense heat generated by the combination of the southern sun and the blazing engines of the rumbling ship. The Eastons enjoyed their first dinner at sea at the Captain's table, regaled by his charming humor and self-deprecating tales of a shipboard life, before settling down to a pleasant evening of wine and card games.

On Wednesday, the sky darkened and the ship sailed into a storm, which grew into a full-strength hurricane by Thursday; pounded by the driving winds and steady rain, the ship rocked and howled but remained on track, if not on time. Ansel and Addie became seasick as the ship rolled with the surge, and the nightly card games devolved into concerned round-table discussions about the severity of the storm. Chief Engineer Ashby assured the passengers that since the engines still fired and the paddlewheels both churned, the ship would have no trouble turning into the wind and riding out the storm, assessments supported by the more experienced passengers, some of whom were sea captains themselves.

Captain Herndon

Captain Herndon

By Friday morning, however, the storm began to take its toll on the ship. The water level in the bilge had risen to an alarming level, signifying that there was a leak, but the engineers could not find where it was. The sloshing water below decks, combined with the fact that the ship sat higher in the water than usual because the engines had burned up large amounts of their heavy coal in order to keep running at such an intense level, caused the Central America to list to starboard, raising the port paddlewheel out of the water. As the winds shredded even their strongest sails instantly, keeping the starboard engine running at full steam was of the highest priority. Captain Herndon ordered every employee—including waiters and stewards, abandoning hungry passengers in the restaurant section—to form a relay line to pass the coal from the storage into the engines, but the flames' endless hunger for the coal outpaced their ability to feed the fuel, and the lone functional paddlewheel began to slow. 

Meanwhile, Ashby and his team of engineers continued to search for the leak, to no avail. As the ship slowed, the merciless storm pounded the vessel, terrifying guests; many of the affluent passengers gathered in the overheated, smelly, loud, cramped, and listing saloon. Ansel and Addie's stateroom porthole was underwater and leaking, so they threw wraps over their nightclothes and joined others in a common area, sitting silently on a bench with Ansel's friend Robert Brown, hoping to wait out the miserable conditions. 

By 2:00 pm on Friday, the rising water had extinguished the starboard engine, and the paddlewheel sputtered to a halt. With no power or means of motivation, the storm turned the ship sideways, and waves relentlessly pounded the helpless craft. Captain Herndon ordered a bucket brigade, and the ship's Best Boy issued a call for all able-bodied men to join immediately in the efforts, prompting cries from some of the women aboard. Robert and Ansel immediately stood to join the bucket brigade; when Addie lamented that if not for her, they would never be in this miserable location, Ansel told her, "If I knew it all beforehand, I should do the same again." With that, he and Robert descended below decks to begin the labor.

The bucket brigade continued through the night on Friday, bailing water from the lower decks, up the stairs and over the railing, in the hopes of drying out and reigniting the engines. Many of the men on the ship were miners and laborers from the San Francisco gold mines, adn so were accustomed to backbreaking physical labor. Women, including Addie, offered to help, but single and married men alike refused to allow the women to assist. The ladies instead supplied food and inspiration; Addie distributed wine and biscuits given to the couple as a wedding present to the laboring men, and immediately earned the admiration of the men for it. Other passengers stated that the men worked like horses, like no one they had ever seen before. Captain Herndon traveled the ship, encouraging the men and women, and portraying confidence even though it was not necessarily warranted. During breaks, Ansel would sit with his new wife, and they would talk about friends and past times and pray together, before his aching muscles rejoined the work. 

By Saturday morning, the twelfth of September, Captain Herndon had resigned himself to the fact that his ship would sink; the bucket brigade succeeded only in buying them all precious time, but the persistent storm simply overwhelmed the craft through sheer power and duration. As the morning's light illuminated the tortured guests and the storm started to abate, the SS Marine, a brig hauling molasses to Boston, spotted the floundering vessel and closed in to exact rescues. Captain Hiram Burt of the Marine attempted to link the ships directly, but the turbulent seas prevented the maneuver; instead, the Central America launched its lifeboats, and the Captain issued the call to evacuate the women and children; the men would stay until the lifeboats could return for them once the women were safely aboard the Marine.

Addie ran to the chest in their stateroom and grabbed some money along with two small miniature portraits depicting her mother and her brother James. Ansel grabbed an overcoat and stuffed their remaining 900 dollars along with some important papers in the pockets, and the two of them ran for the upper decks to put Addie on the lifeboat. Several lifeboats had already departed, or were damaged by the storm, so only three could be launched, and the scene was pure chaos; panicking passengers screamed and cried, clamoring and struggling as they prepared to lower the boats. One Peruvian child refused to leave his 21-year-old brother, and darted away; Captain Burt leaned out from the lifeboat and caught leaping women mid-air; one stewardess was crushed against the Central America's hull; Chief Engineer Ashby held a knife to the throat of a man who tried to sneak aboard and escape, promising loudly to slit the throat of any man who tried to escape before the women were safe. Ansel, over Addie's protestations, insisted that she escape to the Marine; when cold ocean water drenched her while loading, he stripped off and tossed her his overcoat for warmth before her lifeboat was lowered into the sea.

After darkness and the Marine's own damage forced the rescue efforts to an end, Addie watched from the deck of the Marine as the Central America, with Ansel still aboard, launched a series of distress flares, signifying that the craft was suffering its last moments. The rockets, intended to fire vertically, had gone off almost parallel to the ocean level due to the Central America's extreme list. Addie wept uncontrollably as she watched the doomed ship's lights flicker and disappear before the last shadow of the Central America disappeared beneath the waves. After a returning rescue boat reported to Captain Burt that the ship was down with all lost, Addie pleaded with the Captain to keep checking, even offering a fortune in cash, but the Captain refused, saying he would gladly search for free if he felt there was a chance.

The SS Marine returned to shore immediately, unloading Addie and the rest of the survivors. The stewardess who had been crushed by the lifeboat died soon after, becoming the only female casualty of the shipwreck. After some time, a friend of Ansel's from San Francisco arrived from nearby Norfolk, Virginia, and sought out Addie by name. The other ladies, still gathered together, found Addie and led her to receive the good news: Ansel was alive and well in Norfolk, eagerly awaiting their reunion. The other women cheered and embraced Addie heartily, who simply stood in shock at the news.

The final piece of the story, regarding Ansel's rescue, concerns a three-masted Norwegian sailing barque called the Ellen, hauling a load of mahogany from Belize to England under the command of Captain Anders Johnson. As Johnson was sailing, he later reminisced, he saw a small bird entangled in the rigging; the bird struggled, then flew free, before circling in a wide arc and striking Captain Johnson square in the center of the face. The Captain took the bird's odd actions as an omen, and before long he sailed directly into the path of the Central America. There, his crew found dozens of men hanging to driftwood, wreckage, and in one case a chair; over the period of eight hours, the crew of the Ellen pulled 53 men out of the water. Ansel had been clinging to a piece of debris when he saw the Ellen floating out of the mist, and once he was hauled aboard, he pleaded with Captain Johnson to continue to make additional passes for his friend Robert Brown, who, thanks to Ansel's pleadings, became the last survivor pulled from the sea by the Ellen.

Addie, still in her nightdress and wrap, landed with other survivors in Norfolk. Word had spread of the shipwreck survivors, so as they walked down the street, a crowd of locals gathered around them, following the flock toward the hotel where she was to meet Ansel. In his impatience, Ansel had rowed out with Robert to find her, so their ships had literally passed in the night; an hour later, they returned, and when Ansel entered the hotel lobby, he and Addie embraced without saying a word. "Our meeting," Addie later wrote, "I will pass over."

In all, 425 souls went down with the Central America. Captain Herndon was last seen in full dress uniform, hat in hand and engrossed in prayer as his ship went down around him; two ships and the town of Herndon, Virginia, were later named in his honor, and his daughter Ellen married future president Chester A. Arthur two years after the sinking of the Central America. The loss of the millions of dollars worth of gold aboard the ship greatly exacerbated the Panic of 1857, which was already under way in the wake of an embezzlement scandal. Banks at the time conducted business by dealing in gold and silver directly, so after the sinking, many banks were unable to operate; shops and lenders suspended operations or outright closed, and over 100,000 people became unemployed practically overnight.

Ansel and Addie returned to San Francisco, where they later had a daughter and son.  In 1988, a group of explorers discovered the wreck of the Central America, and salvaged over 100 million modern dollars worth of sunken gold; in the wreckage, the crew also discovered a chest containing some jewelry and clothing, a copy of the New York News, two dueling pistols, and a shirt embroidered with the initials of Ansel Easton.

Links and Sources:
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, by Gary Kinder, Grove Press, New York, 1998.
The Pennyslvania Railroad, Volume I: Building an Empire, 1846-1917, by Albert J. Churella, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
"The Panic of 1857" on the Library of Congress American Memory web site, retrieved April 21, 2015.
"Columbus-America Discovery Group and the SS Central America", by Binu Koshy, in Wiley Informs on the Columbia University web site, retrieved April 21, 2015.
The painting "Death of the SS Central America" by Gary Hanna can be found here.
The daguerrotype of Addie Easton was supplied by Louise Adams Easton.

"The Sinking of the Ship of Gold" © 2015 by James Husband