Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: The History and Discovery of the World's Richest Shipwreck

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: The History and Discovery of the World's Richest Shipwreck

by Gary Kinder

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From bestselling author Gary Kinder, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea is a “ripping true tale of danger and discovery at sea” ( Washington Post ), newly updated for this special 20th-anniversary edition.

In September 1857, the SS Central America , a steamer carrying nearly six hundred passengers returning from the California Gold Rush, was caught in a hurricane two hundred miles off the Carolina coast. Despite the heroic efforts of the captain and his crew, the ship, over four hundred lives, and twenty-one tons of California gold were lost. It remains the worst peacetime disaster at sea in American history. Combining historical adventure and scientific discovery, Gary Kinder re-creates the ill-fated voyage, and then tells the story of Tommy Thompson, a young engineer from Ohio who, in the 1980s, set out to be the first ever to work on the bottom of the deep ocean. As the target for his impossible quest, Thompson chose the wrecksite and fabled treasure of the Central America. Kinder chronicles Thompson’s epic battles with naysayers, violent weather, experimental technology, the harsh environment of the deep ocean, and unscrupulous rival treasure hunters. The result is an extraordinary narrative of human drama, heroic rescue, scientific ingenuity, and individual courage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802144256
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 10/20/2009
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 94,091
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Gary Kinder is the author of the bestselling books Victim and Light Years. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two daughters, where he has founded a technology company called WordRake, which creates editing software for writers and businesses.

Read an Excerpt




Tuesday, September 8, 1857

The gas lamps of Havana cast erratic ribbons of light out across the harbor, zigzagging among the dark silhouettes of more than a hundred ships at anchor. In the darkness, the SS Central America lay wrapped in the moist tropical air, her engines silent, her decks dimly lit and trod only by the night watch. In these predawn hours, her five hundred passengers slept with the ship motionless for the first time since departing Panama four days earlier.

High above the ships, at the mouth of the harbor, a massive brown escarpment called El Morro swept upward out of the sea. On top, the flag of Spain awaited the first light of day as it had ever since Columbus celebrated mass on the island three and a half centuries earlier. Then the first glimmer outlined El Morro, and slowly dawn touched the green hills of Cuba, following them down to the sea, as the flag of Spain brightened to crimson and gold, and the Central America emerged from the darkness as the biggest ship in the harbor.

She was sleek and black, her decks scrubbed smooth with holystones, her deckhouses glistening with the yellowed patina of old varnish. Along her lower wale, a red stripe ran nearly three hundred feet stem to stern, and three masts the height and thickness of majestic trees rose from her decks. Spiderwebs of shrouds and stays held her masts taut, and in moments she could sprout full sail, but she rippled with real muscle amidships: two enormous steam engines with pistons that traveled ten feet on each downstroke and turned paddle wheels three stories high. Between the paddle wheels, the funnel rose thick and black above all save the masts.

One of a new generation of sidewheel steamers, the Central America departed New York Harbor on the twentieth of each month, bound for Aspinwall, Panama, where she traded five hundred New York passengers bound for San Francisco for five hundred California passengers returning east. Since her christening in 1853 as the George Law, she had carried one-third of all consigned gold to pass over the Panama route. And in quantities rivaling her official gold shipments, unregistered shipments of gold dust and gold nuggets from the Sierra Nevada, and gold coins struck at the new San Francisco Mint, and gold bars, some the size of building bricks, had traveled aboard her in the trunks and pockets, the carpetbags and money belts of her passengers.

At sunrise the morning gun sounded from El Morro; trumpets blared and drums rolled from high on the fortifications, announcing to the international flotilla of ships that the harbor was now open for the business of the day.

Lighters immediately surrounded the Central America, the small boats filled with oranges and bananas and thin men wearing blue and white checkered shirts and hats made of straw. The boatmen spoke only Spanish, but they chattered and gesticulated, peddling their fruit for dimes thrown by the passengers, who in turn received oranges twice as large as any they had ever seen.

In another hour, the ship's bell resounded across the brightening harbor, and the captain ordered his crew to weigh anchor. Coal smoke and ashes rose from the funnel and roiled into the air over the afterdeck, the paddle wheels of the Central America churning the water white. With her bowsprit pointed onward as gracefully as the arched neck of a stallion, she glided through the mouth of the harbor beneath El Morro and out onto the sea, climbing to her cruising speed of eleven knots, the American flag rippling off the yardarm.

For many of her passengers, the final five days to New York would be the last leg of a long journey that began when news of the rich gold strike in California had first trickled east. "Many of us had been away for years," recalled Oliver Manlove. "We awaited the time of meeting our loved ones again. We were jubilant and made the old ship ring with our voices."

The Central America crossed the Tropic of Cancer, and with the green hills of Cuba shrinking above the whitened wake, the captain took her into the Gulf Stream, which he would follow most of the way to New York. The extra two-and-a-half-knot push lightened the work of his engines.

"As near as I can recollect," the second officer reported later, "we left Havana, Tuesday, September 8, 1857, at 9:25 A.M., and proceeded to sea, steering for Cape Florida, with fine weather, moderate breezes and head sea."

For half a day the seas remained clear and sapphire blue, the breeze in from the trade winds quarter and the surface smooth.

Angling northeast across the Straits of Florida, Captain Herndon followed the inner edge of the Gulf Stream, which flowed within a few miles of the Florida Keys, his course set for the point where the Keys broke loose of the mainland and arced westward. As the day wore on, the sun rose higher, blistering the sides of the ship. Tropical heat filled the hold, and the iron furnaces and boilers burned and bubbled at near capacity, running the temperature even higher.

Most of the passengers littered the weather deck, many of them still nursing mouth boils raised by the tropical sun and layers of raw skin peeling from their hands and faces. Some sat on wooden benches bordering the deck, some leaned over the rail, some coiled on top of the paddle guards, others sat in chairs or on seats under a large awning, and a few watched it all from the rigging. The air was so warm that even with the breeze many could remain in one spot for no more than ten minutes.

"The sky was bright overhead," noted Oliver Manlove, "while there was a slight ripple of the waves. But the hours were passing and by the middle of the afternoon quite a breeze was blowing. The waves were rising, dark and tossing, but were chopping up into little white hills that rose and fell."

That evening at sunset, the first- and second-class passengers took supper at the long tables and railroad benches in the dining saloon. Afterward, they retired topside again to stroll in the cooler evening breezes and amuse themselves with impromptu skits, or readings, or poems put to music and accompanied by a banjo, a guitar, or an old fiddle. Mostly they talked about loved ones and wondered silently how things had changed since they left their homes in the East.

While Captain Herndon entertained guests at his table, Manlove stood on deck, looking across the water, and recorded in his journal the end of their first day out of Havana. "The sun was shining brightly," he remembered, "and dropping down in the west with magnificent splendor, and when it reached the waves it was like a red fire upon them for a moment before it sank away, leaving a crimson flame above it in the sky."

Captain William Lewis Herndon sat at the head of the captain's table, wearing thin gold spectacles. Gold epaulets hung from his shoulders. Married and the father of one daughter, Herndon was slight, and at forty-three balding; a red beard ran the fringe of his jaw from temple to temple. Though he looked like a professor or a banker more than a sea captain, he had been twenty-nine years at sea, in the Mexican War and the Second Seminole War, in the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean Sea. He knew sailing ships and steamers and had handled both in all weather. He was also an explorer, internationally known and greatly admired, who had seen things no other American and few white men had ever seen.

Seven years earlier, in August of 1850, while at anchor in the harbor of Valparaiso, Chile, Herndon had received notice that orders would arrive by the next steamer with instructions for him to explore the Valley of the Amazon, from the trickling headwaters of its tributaries sixteen thousand feet high in the Peruvian Andes all the way to Para Brazil, where the Amazon emptied into the Atlantic, four thousand miles away. "The route by which you may reach the Amazon River is left to your discretion," read his Navy Department order. "It is not desired that you should select any route by which you and your party would be exposed to savage hostility beyond your means of defence and protection. ... Arriving at Para, you will embark by the first opportunity for the United States, and report in person to this department."

Herndon had departed Lima on May 20, 1851, and arrived at Para nearly a year later, traveling the distance by foot, mule, canoe, and small boat. He had compiled lists, kept timetables, taken boiling points, recorded the weather, studied the flora, and measured and skinned small animals and birds. But he filed his report to the navy as a narrative, not only cataloging his scientific and commercial observations, not only presenting his studies of the meteorology, anthropology, geology, and natural history of the Amazon, but also rendering his experiences with natives and nature as colorful scenes that exposed the legends and the beauty and the curious customs of the region, creating one of the finest accounts of travel and discovery ever written. His report so far surpassed his superiors' expectations that Congress had published ten thousand copies as a book, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, which described his adventures with such insight, such compassion and wit, and such literary grace that he had come to symbolize the new spirit of exploration and discovery sweeping mid-nineteenth-century America.

Among the guests dining at the captain's table that evening were the newlyweds Ansel and Addie Easton. Ansel's short dark hair was swept back off of his broad forehead, a goatee covered his chin, and a glint of humor and serenity shone in his eyes. Addie had large eyes and a trim mouth; her dark hair, smooth and shiny, parted in the middle and twirled in soft buns about her ears.

"Captain Herndon had arranged to have us at his table," Addie later wrote to a friend in San Francisco, "and as he was a most delightful man, we enjoyed it very much."

That first night out of Havana, the early conversation turned to a topic popular on the steamers: shipwrecks. Scandal had arisen three years earlier when a captain and crew had rescued themselves from a sinking ship and left passengers to perish. Addie later recalled her host's charming segue to topics more pleasant. "How well I remember Captain Herndon's face as he said, 'Well, I'll never survive my ship. If she goes down, I go under her keel. But let us talk of something more cheerful.' And the captain told us some interesting and delightful experiences he had had in his remarkable Amazon expedition."

Much of Herndon's charm was his self-mocking humor. He told stories with punch lines that underscored the joke was on him. In one story, he remembered being on the river all day, beaching his craft on the shore, and preparing a typical meal of monkey meat and monkey soup. The monkey meat was tough, but the liver was tender and good, and Herndon ate all of it. "Jocko, however, had his revenge," said Herndon, "for I nearly perished of nightmare. Some devil, with arms as nervous as the monkey's had me by the throat, and, staring on me with his cold, cruel eye, expressed his determination to hold on to the death. ... Upon making a desperate effort and shaking him off, I found that I had forgotten to take off my cravat, which was choking me within an inch of my life."

At the other tables in the saloon, the nightly card games had begun, and the sharp clink of silver coins blackened by salt air pierced the splashing of the paddle wheels and the leatherlike creaking of the timbers. Encouraged by good claret and beneath a white layer of smoke from fine Cuban cigars, the conversation at the captain's table continued late into the evening, until the Eastons retired to their stateroom and Captain Herndon excused himself to attend to ship matters.

Early in his exploration of the Amazon, not yet sixty miles from the sea, Herndon had reached the great divide, separating the waters that flow into the Pacific from the waters that flow into the Atlantic. He stood at an elevation of 16,044 feet, following with his eyes a road cut along the flank of the mountain, at whose base sat "a pretty little lake." When he got to the lake, he performed a curious ritual.

"I musingly dropped a bit of green moss plucked from the hill-side upon the placid waters of the little lake, and as it floated along I followed it, in imagination, down through the luxurious climes, the beautiful skies, and enchanting scenery of the tropics to the mouth of the great river; thence across the Caribbean Sea, through the Yucatan pass, into the Gulf of Mexico; thence along the Gulf Stream; and so out upon the ocean, off the shores of Florida."

In Herndon's imagination the green moss had floated along the same course he would take many times a few years later as captain of the SS Central America: across the Caribbean Sea, through the Yucatán pass, into the Gulf of Mexico, then north to catch the Gulf Stream: where she now steamed out upon the ocean, off the shores of Florida, into the dark.

Around midnight, the wind freshened perceptibly from the northeast.

When Second Officer James Frazer assumed his four-hour watch at 0400 Wednesday morning, he recorded the sea conditions: a head sea and a "fresh breeze," seaman's talk for whitecaps and a twenty-knot wind. Just at daybreak, a lookout high in the rigging spied the whiteness of the Cape Florida bore fifteen miles to the west. Then the sky to the east reddened with the rising sun, blazed for minutes in vivid hues, and slowly drained of color as the sun surmounted clouds thickening on the horizon.

Passengers who had drifted in and out of sleep listening to the ship creak and the wind rattle shrouds high in the rigging awoke Wednesday morning tossing in their berths. They climbed the rocking gangways to the weather deck, where sailors confirmed their thoughts: The wind had risen after dark and then blown hard through the night. They could see the coal smoke swirling as it cleared the stack and feel the bow of the ship rise with the swell of the sea. The wind and the salt spray had cooled and freshened the air, filling the morning with a majesty that enchanted some of the passengers.

Returning to his watch at noon, the wind still fresh, the sea still head on the bow, Second Officer Frazer took his meridian observation. Steering along the western edge of the Gulf Stream, they had run 288 miles since leaving Havana twenty-six and a half hours earlier.

Now between the Florida coast and Grand Bahama Isle, the wind stiffened and the sea turned lead gray. Virginia Birch was chatting topside with several other ladies when, she reported, "a squall came up, and the wind blew like a whirlwind, and we had to go downstairs." Passengers who ventured onto the deck quickly returned to the main cabin to escape the wind and the spray. As the day passed from morning to afternoon, the wind continued to rise, and the waves lifted the steamer's bow higher and higher, before dropping her into the oncoming sea.

"In the afternoon there was a change," wrote Manlove. "It changed our feelings and drove the waves into mountains and valleys and made the old ship stagger."

Passengers unused to ocean weather and fearful at the first creaks wondered at the high waves and the rising winds; others watched the sailors methodically tend to their deck work and assumed that such weather was merely part of life at sea. "Everyone felt confident that the wind would soon abate," said one passenger, "and that there was nothing to be feared."

More immediate than the fear of storm was the nausea of seasickness. Most steamer passengers had never been on the ocean. During rough weather, the lee rail was often lined, as one contemporary put it, with "demoralized passengers paying their tribute to old Neptune." Beginning with dinner at Wednesday noon, the number of passengers desiring food had dwindled. Even the ship doctor took sick. By day's end, the sea rose above the plunging bow, flowed over the guards, and washed across the weather deck.

"When the twilight came," wrote Manlove, "if it could be called twilight, there was a raging storm such as we had never before seen. The waves and sky were crashing together." That evening, the dining saloon was almost deserted. A few steerage passengers stood and ate their meals, their legs wide to brace themselves, their elbows pinning a plate. Seasickness had confined the Birches and the Eastons to their berths. Another woman described the time as rather unpleasant, although she felt no danger. "At least my husband said he thought there was no danger, as we had so strong a ship."

Despite the weather, the nightly game of cards among the hardy souls in the main cabin went on as scheduled. At the captain's table a game of whist ensued, and across from Captain Herndon sat his partner at whist, Judge Monson. Although taking tricks in a four-hand game of cards was tame for the judge's propensity, he enjoyed a good turn of phrase and relished as well a good story, especially the telling of his own. Three times he had sailed east and back, and on an earlier voyage, he had befriended Captain Herndon. Now when he traveled, he always sat on Herndon's left at table.


Excerpted from "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea"
by .
Copyright © 1998 Gary Kinder.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Ship of Gold,
The Deep Blue Sea,

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Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read and re-read this awesome book. If ever there were a true story of deep interest to all numismatic collectors and treasure-hunters, this is it. It's beautifully narrated -- it's no cliche that you can't put it down -- it's a fact! The preceding review by Barnes & Noble about says it all; however, it's extremely difficult to describe the true excitement that this book generates! I give this book an unadulterated FIVE STARS. --
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Outstanding character, intelligence, dedication and integrity of all who made this happen. And especially their leader Tommy Thompson
kenno82 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The publisher needs to revisit the cover and the title. I thought it would be as interesting as reading the Sunday classifieds on first look. However, Kinder has provided a compelling account of one hell of an underwater adventure. I'd never heard of the sinking of Central America, but the tragedy is unique in terms of size, history and consequence. The book follows the project to find and salvage the wreckage. It's a great read. It reminded me a little of Shadow Divers, both in terms of the story, the way it's told and the enthusiasm and drive of the protagonists.
afterlifewriter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A marvelous book; a real page turner. Keep the reader's interest through all the 400 + pages.
LisaMaria_C on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1857, the SS Central America, a "side-wheeler steamer" sank, taking over 400 lives--and taking with it 21 tons of gold from the California Gold Rush. The book tells two entwined stories. That of the heroic efforts to save the ship and the struggles of the survivors, and over a hundred years later the tale of Tommy Thompson, a seemingly eccentric inventor, but one with the training of an engineer and the spirit of an entrepreneur who sees the recovery of the ship's treasures not just "as an end in itself, but as a way to learn how to work in the deep ocean" given the wreck was at a crushing depth in the ocean lower than many mountains are high. The author handled both halves of his tale well. I bought this book after reading The Perfect Storm, a truly fascinating tale of the sea. Ship of Gold scratched that itch as a great tale of the sea, of science, of human heroism and tragedy and adventure. It's something else I don't see much of--a tale of entrepreneurship. Of smarts and risks and high stakes. The challenges posed in the enterprise included historical, legal, technological, financial, poaching from competitors--and especially the sea, which many experts considered more forbidding to exploration than the moon. Given just the information in the back of the book, I thought I'd know how this book would turn out, yet the author managed to make it page-turning and suspenseful, making me more riveted to the page the further I read. Kinder had a great story to tell and it wasn't wasted on him.
picardyrose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Weaves together the tales of a historical shipwreck and the high-tech deep-water search for its treasure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have reread this amazing story of a Tommy Thompson and his unique belief in what is possible at least five times
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Such a great tale
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This narrative recounts the discovery and retrieval of piles of gold--gold bars, gold coins, and gold nuggets--from the SS Central America, which sank off the coast of North Carolina in a hurricane in September 1857. This was about 140 miles off the coast, on the other side of the Gulf Stream, in waters deeper than 8,000 feet. The book weaves the story of the original final voyage, sinking, rescue of survivors, loss of more than 400 passengers and crew, and loss of more that 20 tons of California Gold Rush gold, together with the search for the long-lost ship and the efforts to retrieve the treasure and many other artifacts--a major advancement in deep water technology work. This was a very long book, more than 500 pages, but well worth the read, which portrays an American tragedy redeemed by an American dreamer with boot-straps ingenuity and perseverance.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am an engineer by training, and I was inspired by Tommy's growth from a tinkering youngster to a disciplined and profoundly entrepreneurial engineer. In some ways, this is an interweaving of the stories of Titanic and Apollo 13. From Titanic you'll find the drama of a respected captain, a trusted vessel, and the hopes, dreams, and loves of hundreds on board--and a disaster which smashes it all. From Apollo 13 you'll find the marriage of human aspiration and human ingenuity--sometimes under unbelievable pressure--to see a project through: a project which has become greater than the sum of its parts. I've read plenty of books, and I'd say this is among the best I've read. Tommy deserves the credit and attention he's given. He earned the respect of every engineer, mariner, jurist, historian, investor, accountant and scientist he came in contact with. Now Kinder has allowed us to see his ability.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I like the way the author took the reader back and forth from the past to the present. It was interesting to see how much planning and inguenuity it took to accomplish the recovery of the gold. Once the treasure was found, I have to admit to having a mild case of 'gold fever' due to the vivid descriptions provided by G. Kinder. The only reason I didn't give it 5 stars is because of the Tommy praising!!!! Alright already he certainly must walk on water, and if he doesn't he'll surely invent a way to. Inspite of the Tommy factor, this is a good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was most impressed by the unbelievable persistence of Tommy ... and the incredible devotion to detail involved in the recovery of the gold. Surely as much attention was paid to minutia and history as was the understandable pursuit of wealth.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Could not put this book down. First chapter or two was intense. The what and the how the team went through to salvage this ship was fantastic. This book has drama, history, and science.