Hunting for gold an a sunken ship that sparked an 1857 banking panic

A deep-ocean exploration company in Florida says it has recovered nearly 1,000 ounces of gold, worth $1.3 million (£769,640) at current gold prices, on a dive to an historic Atlantic Ocean shipwreck.

The ship went down in 1857 with 21 tons of gold aboard after a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina and sparked a US banking panic.

The dive confirmed that the ship, the SS Central America, had not been disturbed since 1991.

Two of the gold bars recovered during the first exploration. Credit: Reuters

Recovered gold included five gold ingots and two $20 Double Eagle coins, an 1857 coin minted in San Francisco and an 1850 coin minted in Philadelphia.

The gold ingots were stamped with the manufacturer's "assay-mark" and weigh from 96.5 to 313.5 troy ounces.

We picked up five gold bars that totaled 1000 ounces in weight and two mid 1800's $20 (£11) gold pieces.

– Mark Gordon - Odyssey Chief Operating Officer

The $20 Double Eagle coins fetch an average of $5,000 (£2,949) from collectors.

A gold coin is displayed after being recovered. Credit: Reuters

More than $40 million in gold was recovered by the original team led by Tommy Thompson, an Ohio engineer who discovered the shipwreck in 1988 using sonar and robotic technology he developed.

Only about 5 percent of the shipwreck site was explored in the late 1980s, Gordon said.

In March, Odyssey won the rights to return to the shipwreck and a two-hour reconnaissance dive in mid-April took place as the company's research vessel, Odyssey Explorer, was traveling from the UK to Charleston

The Odyssey submersible is lowered into the waters enroute to Charleston. Credit: Reuters

Historians say the loss of the gold caused a banking panic that contributed to a larger U.S. economic crisis, called the Panic of 1857, that lasted several years.

As prices fell and the values vanished, several of those banking firms failed. A concurrent delay of gold shipments from California contributed to the despair.

This was compounded by the sinking of the Central America, which sent its huge load of gold - historian Bray Hammond estimates value equal to one-fifth of the gold then in Wall Street coffers - to the bottom of the sea.

With that gold, it had been hoped that banks could withstand any run; without it, they were at grave risk of failure.

– Excerpt from America’s Lost Treasure - by Tommy Thompson

The 280-foot (85 meters) sidewheel steamship carried 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 were lost when the ship sank.