The Barnes & Noble Review
"The bailing was continued vigorously all night, my own dear husband taking his turn and when exhausted returning to my side; and when a little rested again resuming his place.... All that fearful night we watched and prayed, not knowing but that every hour might be the last.... We resolved that when the moment came we would tie ourselves together and the same wave would engulf us both." From the journal of Adeline Mills Easton, survivor of the Central America
In 1857, the SS Central America, a side-wheel steamer laden with 21 tons of gold from the California Gold Rush and carrying 600 passengers and crew, sank 200 miles off the Carolina coast. It was the worst peacetime disaster at sea in American history, and a wreck that remained lost for more than a century.
In the early 1980s, a young engineer from Ohio was determined to do what no one including the U.S. Navy had been able to do: establish a working presence on the deep-ocean floor and open it to science, archaeology, history, medicine, and recovery. As bestselling author Gary Kinder explains in the book Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, the sinking and recovery of the Central America has advanced science, marine technology, maritime law, and our understanding of history. After years of intensive efforts, Tommy Thompson and the Columbus-American Discovery Group invented a deep-sea research robot, found the Central America in 8,000 feet of water, and, in October 1989, sailed into Norfolk with her recovered treasure: gold coins, bars,andnuggets, plus steamer trunks filled with period clothes, newspapers, books, journals, and even an intact cigar, which had been underwater for 130 years. Life magazine called this discovery "the greatest treasure ever found."
A human drama on two levels, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea alternates between the tale of Thompson's decade-long pursuit of the wreck and a powerful re-creation of the ship's downfall, based on survivors' accounts. Kinder chronicles the events of September 1857, during which the passengers and the cargo of the Sonora were transferred to the Atlantic steamer Central America for the nine-day final leg of the trip, from Panama to New York. It was during this voyage that the Central America met a hurricane described by the Charleston Daily Courier as a storm of "almost unprecedented fury and violence." The ship battled strong winds and 35-foot seas, which eventually leaked into the steam engines. As the 60 women and children onboard huddled in fear, 500 men bailed water. Eventually the women and children were led into lifeboats manned by crewmen and were saved by a crippled bark. But at nightfall, with Captain Herndon standing on the bridge, the Central America sank, taking 300 men with it.
Interwoven with this story is Kinder's account of the efforts of Tommy Thompson to make the deep ocean accessible to scientists. In 1973 the dean of the School of Mechanical Engineering at Ohio State, asked his students a simple question: How are we going to work in the deep ocean? For the next ten years, Thompson pondered his mentor's question. In the early 1980s, while working as an engineer, Thompson began to research historic ships lost at sea, eventually focusing on the Central America. With help from his two friends, geologist Bob Evans and journalist Barry Schatz, Thompson had financial backing for his project by the summer of 1985. He led a group of engineers in creating a robot the first of its kind that could perform intricate tasks under thousands of feet of deep water, and in 1986 Thompson and his team set off to sea to find the Central America with sonar. Delays came about when competitors who had mounted their own expeditions to find the Central America appeared at the wreck site and tried to force Thompson off. It wasn't until 1988 that Thompson and his group first saw what few people could imagine: "The bottom was carpeted with gold. Gold everywhere, like a garden. The more you looked, the more you saw gold growing out of everywhere."
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea is a testament to the human will to triumph over adversity. Since the implementation of this underwater project, and the technology that evolved from it, scientists have observed, among other discoveries, 13 previously unknown life-forms, some of which may prove beneficial to mankind.
New York Times
A 24-carat sea classic. . . .Spellbinding.
Titanic tragedy meets Tom Clancy technology. Kinder has lashed together a thumping good narrative.
Kinder's book is an incredible minute-by-minute account of the ill-fated steamship, [the] Central America....Ship of Gold is a fresh adventure story and exciting history.
The pleasures of this big book are bittersweet. Great books seduce: They
allure, bewitch, provoke and, with a smooth coup de grâce, deliver on their promise. Gary Kinder, a Seattle writer of two previous works of journalism, certainly delivers here -- having lucked into a story this compelling, it would have
taken an act of malicious incompetence to have done otherwise. But his seduction is so flat-footed and drab -- Kinder writes like a bricklayer, one brick after the other, slow and methodical -- that this particular seductee nearly screamed aloud for him to get on with it. But despite Kinder's detail-obsessed long-windedness,
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea nudged more than one evening's reading into the dark morning hours. Whatever flaws Kinder has as a storyteller are more than offset by the sheer might of his tale.
Which, more or less, is this: In September 1857, a side-wheel steamer christened the S.S. Central
America, en route from Panama to New York City and laden with California miners and their gold, as well as a 30,000-pound government gold shipment destined to shore up the floundering northern industrial economy, sank in a storm 200 miles off the Carolina coast. It was a nautical nightmare, the Titanic of its age. More than 450 people sank with the ship, which came to a dismal rest a mile and a half down on the ocean floor. But this is merely half of Kinder's tale,
interwoven throughout the book. The remaining half occurs 132 years later, in 1989, when a brilliant, iconoclastic engineer named Tommy
Thompson led an expedition to salvage what amounted to more than $1 billion worth of gold coins and bullion from the wreckage, in the process all but reinventing deep-sea technology.
It was an accomplishment that inspired a federal appeals court to gush: "Their story is a paradigm of American initiative, ingenuity, and determination." Kinder puts it this way: "Tommy Thompson and about a dozen colleagues committed to developing a working presence on
the bottom of the deep ocean. No one had done it; no one knowledgeable thought it could be done without the full force of the United States government and unlimited resources. Even then, some were skeptical, because the government
had already spent hundreds of millions trying." With $12 million in private investments and a three-year time frame, Thompson and his group proved nearly everyone wrong -- and yanked up a tremendous amount of gold.
It is by all means a remarkable story, an action-packed maritime tale that might easily have
caught the eye of a latter-day Melville. It would be egregiously unfair, of course, to suggest that Kinder aspire to such lofty heights, but not so unfair to wish that his Micheneresque exhaustiveness had been curbed just a smidgen.
It's an extraordinary story of scientific adventure, one that might have been, were it a little more taut, an extraordinary narrative as well. -- Salon
Enough to satisfy fans looking for this summer's Into Thin Air and A Perfect Storm.
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea is non-fiction treasure....The book takes hold of you from page one and never lets go....History and heroics, science and suspense -- Ship of Gold has that blockbuster feel.
Dallas Morning News
Page-turning reportage. . .Vivid and immediate.
Detroit Free Press
An entertaining story of the sea and those who try to master it.
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
There cannot be a doubt about the fact that the name of Captain Herndon will ever be held in grateful remembrance among all the heroes who have achieved triumphs upon the sea (1857).
The summer's best adventure story.
On September 12, 1857, the steamship Central America sank in a great storm off the coast of South Carolina and settled a mile and a half beneath the waves. Most of the 423 souls on board perished. Lost, too, was $2,189,000 (now worth $1 billion) in California gold. The Central America worked the Panama-New York route, bringing gold seekers to Panama and returning ex-miners and their gold to New York. In 1989, a group of investors and treasure salvagers equipped with the latest underwater equipment was able to bring back much of the cargo, including the largest treasure ever recorded. The discovery of this vessel and its riches led to protracted litigation between various claimants, and the case is still in the courts. Kinder (Light Years, 1987) has followed the story from its beginning. -- Stanley Itkin, Hillside Public Library, New Hyde Park, NY
School Library Journal
YA-There's a lot of deep blue sea out there and the Titanic isn't the only ship it has claimed. In 1857, the SS Central America, carrying over 400 people and 21 tons of gold from the California gold fields to New York, foundered and sank during a hurricane 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina. There it lay for 132 years until Tommy Thompson, an ever-questioning, enterprising young engineer from Columbus, OH, thought to find it and salvage its cargo. This account of Thompson's indefatigable quest describes how he put together a research team, got funding to establish a company, and ultimately came up with the technology to conquer depths never before explored. An engrossing story.-Pamela B. Rearden, Centreville Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA
Kinder is a great storyteller....Ship of Gold is a rich and satisfying book that will be passed from friend to friend.
The Washington Post
Thompson and company. . .set out to do what never had been one before. . .not only to find the Central America but to excavate it with archaeological precision on the deep ocean floor using only undersea robotics. Nemo, their 12,000-pound remotely operated exploration vehicle, has the capability of recovering items as large as a 1,000-pound anchor or as small as a dime. -- From 'Storybook Treasure Found off South Carolina,' September 14, 1989
LA Times Book Review
White-knuckle reading...with generous portions of adventure, intrigue, heroism, and high technology interwoven.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
A tale pressing forward at flank speed, exhilarating the reader.
A riveting tale. . .a soul-stirring account.
The truly fascinating tale of the first successful deep-water ocean salvage operation is a tribute to good, old-fashioned American ingenuity and grit, with a big dose of Titanic-like adventure to boot. In 1857, the SS Central America sank in 9,000 feet of water off the Carolina coast. Lost were nearly 500 California miners and their gold. It was the biggest maritime disaster in US history at that time, and the huge gold loss contributed to the financial panic of 1857. Because ocean explorers lacked the technology to work in blue water, the wreck lay undisturbed for 130 years. Then came Tommy "Harvey" Thompson, an innovative engineer and maverick thinker from Columbus, Ohio. Using sophisticated search theory and historical research to locate the wreck, Thompson and his talented helpers then designed and built a pathbreaking recovery robot (something the US government had failed to do, despite a huge expenditure of research dollars) in only months, using off-the-shelf components, on a shoestring budget, and in top secrecy.
Kinder (Light Years: An Investigation into the Extraterrestrial Experiences of Eduard Meier, 1987) alternates between Thompson's decade-long quest to gather the necessary investors and technicians and a gripping re-creation of the doomed ship's voyage based on survivors' accounts. (Unlike the Titanic, the Central America tragedy occasioned great heroism; male passengers bailed relentlessly for hours and other ship crews risked their lives to evacuate women and children.) The driven genius Thompson and his crew brought a scientific approach to ocean salvage sorely missing in the operations of the typical hit-and-run treasurehunters who plunder shallow water wrecks. Greater than average scientific, financial, and archaeological dividends are their rewards. Kinder's well-told tale of the Central America recovery (which represents nothing less than the opening of a new frontier in the deep ocean) is one of the great scientific adventure stories of our times.
Read an Excerpt
Outside Battelle, Tommy was now amassing voluminous notes on underwater technology, beginning to formulate relationships with suppliers, and corresponding with historical archives at several libraries on the East Coast. For years he had collected information on deep-water, historic shipwrecks, and the list had grown to forty. He and Bob met more frequently, together refining what they called the Historic Shipwreck Selection Process and narrowing the targets to a project Tommy could present to investors. "We developed the language as we went along," said Bob, "the selection criteria for projects in general, and then we analyzed the risks involved with each ship."
They divided risk into intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic risks were those inherent to the site: probability of previous recovery, accuracy of historical documentation, and the environment around the site. All deep-water shipwrecks scored high in the first category; most of them scored high in the second category; few of them did well in the third. Shipwrecks with a high total score then advanced to form a universe of "Feasibly Recoverable Shipwrecks with Low Intrinsic Risk."
Next, they assessed the extrinsic risks, those that had to do with recovery: Favorable Operational Factors, Positive Site Security, Legal Rights Obtainable. Is the technology available to access that site, can we guarantee site security in that area of the world, and do we have legal protection?
Once they had eliminated all ships but those with low intrinsic and low extrinsic risks, each ship had to pass a final test: Was there anything on board worth recovering?
The Titanic was a hunk of steel seven hundred feet long that would burn a hole through a sonar chart; even if it rested in mountainous territory, they could probably find it, and the abundant historical documentation would help them narrow the search area. But the Titanic presented two insurmountable risks: Her steel hull would be impossible to penetrate even with the technology Tommy saw on the horizon. And if they could get inside, she carried nothing worth recovering; some loose jewelry perhaps, rings and bracelets and necklaces scattered in various small cubicles, but no treasure centrally stored, nothing they could use to make the payoff attractive to investors.
"In terms of financial risk," said Bob, "the Titanic was not a good project."
Other deep-water ships presented similar problems. Myths had arisen around some of them that tons of gold lay stored in secure compartments. But no historical data supported the myths. In 1909, the British White Star luxury liner Republic had gone down fifty miles off Nantucket, and for decades, rumors had circulated that it had taken millions in gold coins with it. But no official records existed. "Sure, there were a lot of rich people on board," said Bob,"but how much was in the purser's safe? Nobody knows."
The Andrea Doria, an Italian liner hailed by her owners as the "Grande Dame of the Sea," collided with another ship in dense fog in 1956 and also went down just off Nantucket. She was a glistening seven-hundred-foot floating museum of murals, rare wood panels, and ceramics designed by Italian artists, and her passengers also were wealthy, but once again myth about the treasure on board sprouted from rumor with no documentation.
Tommy and Bob were convinced that the San José had carried more than a billion dollars in treasure to the bottom when British warships landed a cannonball in her munitions cache and sank her in 1708. But the San José was off the coast of Colombia in murky, turbulent waters.
After many deep-water shipwrecks were run through the selection process, the sidewheel steamer SS Central America rose to the top in every category. It had sunk in an era of accurate record keeping and reliable navigation instruments. Dozens of witnesses had testified to the sinking, and five ship captains had given coordinates that placed the ship in an area where sediment collected no faster than a centimeter every thousand years. The extrinsic risks looked as favorable: She had a wooden hull, which would be easier to get into, and massive iron works in her steam engines and boilers that would provide a good target for sonar, even if much of the iron had corroded and disappeared. And it was off the coast of the United States, so they wouldn't have to negotiate with a foreign government and they could more easily provide site security.
One other thing appealed to Tommy and Bob: the ship was American and its treasure symbolized one of the most defining periods in American history, that narrow window running from the California Gold Rush through the Civil War. If they could find it, they would open a time capsule representing an entire nation during a crucial period in its formation.
"The Central America," said Bob, "scored much, much higher than any other project when subjected to this selection process."
And her gold shipment was documented: With gold valued at $20 an ounce in 1857, the publicly reported commercial shipment totaled between $1.210 and $1.6 million. Although many of the Central America's records, including her cargo manifest, had been destroyed in the Great San Francisco Fire of 1906, some accounts estimated that the gold carried by the passengers at least equaled the commercial shipment. And the Department of the Army recently had confirmed a story approaching myth that had circulated for years: that the Central America carried an official secret shipment of gold destined to shore up the faltering northern industrial economy. The letter, dated April 2, 1971, acknowledged that the information about the shipment had been declassified, and it verified that secreted in her hold the Central America had also carried six hundred fifty-pound bar boxes, or another thirty thousand pounds of gold.