"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.