At the Mercy of the Sea: SS Central America

SS Central America Courtesy Wikipedia

In 1853 the sidewheel steamer George Law was launched. Later she would be renamed the Central America. Her last voyage began on the morning of 8 September 1857. She was carrying $1.5 million in gold. Her captain was William Lewis Herndon, a capable and experienced commander. Aboard the ship were about 600 people.

On September 9th, passengers and crew noted the the wind was beginning to pick up. That evening the rain began to fall. The next day the Central America was tossed around like a piece of driftwood as the sea raged all about. Still the stalwart steamer weathered the ordeal well. But that was not to last. On the 11th, Chief Engineer George Ashby informed Herndon that the ship was taking on water. The water was settling on the starboard side, as the ship listed. Down below, the engine crew was having trouble keeping the furnaces fed with coal while keeping their footing at the same time. Herndon sent more crewmen  down to help, but it did little good. The coal still didn’t come quick enough and as the water continued to rise, it threatened to put the starboard paddle wheel out of commission. Meanwhile Herndon had other crewmen set a sail. But as they would learn, it was impossible. Each time the sails rose to meet the wind, it was torn to pieces.

Captain William Herndon Courtesy Wikipedia

As the hours passed Herndon and his officer fought a losing battle. They struggled to bring the “ship head to wind” but found it impossible. The passengers had also become aware of how grim the situation was. That same day a loud cracking noise resounded throughout the ship. At first passengers feared they had sprung a leak (which they had, Ashby just hadn’t been able to find the source). Then the engines stopped, but passengers barely noticed their absence midst all of the storm’s noise. Soon came the call for all men passengers to assist in bailing. As quick as the ship was bailed out though, more water would pour in. The hours were long and the men began to tire. When the long night passed, the morning of September 12th was a welcome sight. The storm even appeared to be dissipating.

The ship’s flag flew upside down to alert passing ships of their distress. It was only a matter of time before the Central America went down. Despite the best efforts, water was gaining ground in the ship. In a conversation with a sailor passenger and Ashby, Herndon resigned himself to the fact that the Central America would sink. Ashby, prone to expletives and a furious temper, blustered how he wasn’t about to let the ship sink.

The Marine takes on survivors Courtesy Library of Congress

By noon the storm had returned with vengeance. A few hours later the brig Marine under Captain Hiram Burt limped over to the wounded steamer. Burt offered his assistance and tried to stand by. But the storm pushed him on and the distance widened between the two ships. The Marine had also been damaged in the storm, but wasn’t sinking like the Central America. Herndon set to loading women and children into the Central America’s 3 remaining lifeboats. One lifeboat had been damaged the previous day and two were lost while being launched. Families were separated and men left the bailing line temporarily to bid their families goodbye. Some people left behind all the money they had. There were quite a few women injured while dropping into the awaiting lifeboats. One lady was lowered into a boat only to land in the sea. She was picked up, but as she settled into a seat a heavy woman landed on top of her. Once the boats were full, they began to pull for the Marine. The trip between the Marine and Central America took from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours. The survivors were taken aboard the Marine and given dry clothes.

Back on the Central America, a saddened Herndon gave his watch to a passenger to give to his wife. When the lifeboats returned to take on more passengers, Ashby got permission from Herndon to go to the Marine and bring the Marine’s boats back. While climbing down into the boat a man tried to follow Ashby and landed on top of him. Angry, Ashby told the man to jump overboard or he would kill him with a knife he was wielding. Herndon put an end to it, so whether Ashby was bluffing we can only speculate. When the boats arrived at the Marine, the boat crews were exhausted. They refused to go back. Ashby tried to convince them to go back, but to no avail. He gave up and found himself breaking the promise he made to Herndon that he would return.

At 4 PM the schooner El Dorado arrived near the Central America and tried to stay close. But like the Marine she began to drift away as she fought the storm.

The Central America Sinks Courtesy Library of Congress

The very last lifeboat arrived at the Marine’s side with grim news. The Central America had sunk. There had been approximately 500 souls left on the Central America. With the terrible news Burt tried to find survivors but was unsuccessful. The next day he sailed for Norfolk.

In their last hours some of the men aboard the steamer began throwing their gold all over the place (gold they had earned in the California Gold Rush). Exposed to the storm, Herndon and his second officer sent up rockets. They were lighting the last one when a wave slammed into the ship, rocking it. Two more waves followed. It was too much. The Central America sunk to her death, taking with her hundreds of souls or leaving others to battle the elements on the surface. Those who were not pulled down with the steamer, latched onto wreckage and tried to ride out the storm. Some survivors were suffering from wounds inflicted on them during the sinking.

The Ellen under Captain Anders Johnsen stumbled across the survivors and began pulling them aboard his ship. Johnsen combed the waters for some time before he was certain that everyone had been saved. Then he too headed for Norfolk, arriving before the Marine.

Three more men would be found on September 21st, bringing the total amount of people saved up to 143. Second Assistant Engineer John Tice had survived on a plank of wood and later found one of the Central America’s lifeboats. He had come across two men floating on a raft. He took them aboard and they floated around hungry and miserable until they were sighted and rescued by a brig. They arrived in New York safe, but a little worse for the wear.

In 1987 the wreck was discovered, gold and all.

Source: Kinder, Gary. Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea.


39 thoughts on “At the Mercy of the Sea: SS Central America

    • Thank you, I appreciate your kind words.

      Yeah it’s too bad they hadn’t been saved. I guess the storm just made nearly impossible. The Ellen came across them by accident. The captain had changed his course, but a superstition caused him to change his course once again, back to what it was. Thanks for your comment!


  1. I once read that it was considered bad luck to rename a ship. Do you know if this was considered the case? Seems like many of the disasters you write about concern vessels that were renamed at some point.

    I remember when the Central America was discovered; it was huge news, given all the gold aboard. Fascinating story and post.


    • Not sure. If it was I don’t recall reading about it in “Ship of Gold”. I’m not sure if she had been sold and then renamed or if she was just renamed. Usually when the ships were sold the new owners would give the ship a different name.

      Yes, so much gold! With what the ship herself was carrying combined with the passengers’.

      Thanks for your comment.


  2. Gripping story, very well told, as always. Rings a little harder, after my own recent, relatively trivial, maritime “exploits” My understanding by the way is that is bad luck to re-name a ship. Tragic story. But great post, thank you.


    • Thank you!

      I wonder, since it was considered bad luck, why ships were renamed so often. After all many sailors were superstitious.

      I finally picked up a copy of “King’s Leopold Ghost”. Look forward to reading it. Thanks for your comment.


    • Thanks J.G. About King L’sGs; It’s a very, very good book. But not pretty reading, but it’s probably a book we should all read. (I was shocked I didn’t know almost any of it before) Anyway, steel yourself for some horrific content, but I think you will be gripped. Respects from Dublin- AQH.


    • Yep, I’ve prepared myself for it. Am just now reaching this part of Stanley’s life in “Stanley” by Tim Jeal. Jeal’s book is heavy reading.


    • More like the former. It must be the most exhaustive book on Stanley’s life. I never thought I’d say this about a book, but there’s way too much information! Most likely because I’m new to the subject.


    • Yes, I know what you mean. Very occasionally, there are books, where you find yourself wondering, is life just too short for this book?!


    • Haha! You wouldn’t believe how long it takes to read just a few pages of this book. Still I’m sure there are people out there who would enjoy it.


  3. Excellent story! I never heard it before.

    I have always heard it was bad luck to rename any boating vessel; even after selling it. This must be a myth? Or possibly there is something to it?

    Thank you again for sharing a part of history!


    • Personally, I don’t believe in the bad luck/superstitions that comes from renaming boats, women aboard, etc. I’ve always wondered why some of the early sailors were extremely superstitious. Perhaps that was their way of explaining some things they didn’t understand?

      Course we landlubbers were pretty superstitious ourselves! Black cats cross our paths, walking under a ladder and this list goes on.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment.


  4. I have been thinking about your post for the past couple of days. I live on the Pacific Coast of Canada. The ocean has always been a mystery to me – it can be gentle and yet, in just minutes, it becomes unrelenting, unforgiving. Even the cruise ships with their stabilizers are no match for an angry sea. But we cannot give up the adventure. Vincent Van Gogh says it well: “The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” Great post, as always….


  5. Wow, I just stumbled on your blog. This is amazing, what a treasure trove! I just learned something new about maritime history. I love your writing and it is so nice to see bloggers taking time to publish well-researched writing with substance. Thank you for posting this for us!


    • Welcome aboard! Thank you, I’m glad you liked it. 😀

      I find maritime history absolutely fascinating and am happy you found this little niche in history interesting. Thank for your comment.


  6. Thank you! I am a descendant of Captain Herndon. My son is doing a short report on him, so we’re using info from your site. 🙂 Thanks!


    • And John Tice did not come across them. My ancestor swan to his lifeboat using his remaining strength after 7 or so days no food no water other than rain he stripped down tohis underwear and swam making it to Johns lifeboat and the 2 of them rowed back over to get the third. My ancestor was a 25 yr old fireman part of the 101 crew which included John Tice. Other interesting tidbits are those 2 men in your last para had previously survived another shipwreck together. In fact my ancestor Alexander went on to survive a total of 4 shipwrecks! Later killed years later by a superstitious crew while boarding another ship to work. They thought with him on board they’d all die in a shipwreck….


  7. Pingback: Sunday, January 21, 1866 – 42

  8. Great story! The woman Captain Herndon gave his watch to was my 3rd great aunt, Mary Sawyers Cook. She was 17 and she and her 10 month old daughter were rescued by the Brig Marine. Mary’s husband, Samuel, went down with the ship. Mary was able to get Capt. Herndon’s watch to his wife in Albany New York. The Herndon’s daughter, Ellen, would later marry Chester Arthur who became President of the United States. As of 1901 Arthur’s son was in possession of the watch. Ms. Cook corresponded regularly with President Arthur and his son.


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