By James D. “Keeper James” Charlet | Correspondent
The sidewheel paddler SS Central America sank off the coast of North Carolina on Sept. 12, 1857, now 164 years ago. The ship was ruined and 426 souls were lost. But that’s just the beginning.
This single shipwreck — for the only time in U.S. history — caused an unknown candidate from neither of the two main political parties to be elected as president of the United States. Incredibly, this was not even a third party; no third party has ever won. This was a fourth party just formed six years earlier and whose platform unashamedly and unapologetically only represented the northeast U.S.
America had been gradually expanding west since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, with various grueling means of travel. But the most significant and democratic improvement came with the transcontinental railroad first completed in 1869. The trip took about four days in much greater comfort and much less danger.
Before the steam trains, however, came the greatest single population migration in American history: the 1849 California Gold Rush! In less than a year, the population swelled from a few individuals to 100,000. In roughly one year, $2 billion worth of gold was excavated.
Stable companies were soon formed to become organized businesses. The gold would leave San Francisco by paddlewheel steamship bound for the Isthmus of Panama. Everything was unloaded at docks at Panama City on the Pacific coast. Then, it was arduously transported the grueling 50 miles through the jungle to the port of Aspinwale, now Colón, on the Atlantic coast. William Henry Aspinwall had developed plans to build a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama to shorten the journey from coast to coast started in 1850 was finally finished in 1855. There the cargo was reloaded onto steamers of the Atlantic fleet bound for New York.
The shipping lines
Thus, two complementary lines evolved. One going back and forth from California to Panama, and the other from Panama to New York. The U.S. Mail Steamship Company was formed in 1848 and carried mail from New York to the Isthmus of Panama, where it would then be delivered to California. The company also carried passengers. Eventually, the successful and profitable company ordered two new large ships to be built, one of which was named the SS George Law, after the New York financier and co-owner of the company.
The George Law made its maiden voyage to Panama on Oct. 20, 1853. It returned to New York on Nov. 10 carrying 465 passengers and almost $900,000 worth of California gold. That was $31.5 million in today’s dollars. Not a bad start.
After 42 profitable voyages, the SS George Law was dry-docked at the Webb Shipyard in New York. The engines were overhauled and some of the hull’s copper sheathing was replaced. It was during this dry dock period in 1857 that the ship’s name was changed to the SS Central America. It is unknown why the name change occurred.
Central America’s final voyage
William Herndon, United States Navy captain, departed the port of Aspinwale, Panama, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 1857. The SS Central America was carrying the now-usual 467 passengers, 102 crew members and over 6,000 pounds of gold. Several days later it docked in Havana, Cuba, for a routine stop. There, more passengers come aboard.
On departing for New York, the weather was delightful, and the sea was calm. However, on Friday, Sept. 11, the following morning, Central America had found itself in the fury of a hurricane for which the Graveyard of the Atlantic is famous. The Central America began taking on water. The violent waves rocked the ship unmercifully, making it virtually impossible to feed coal to the boilers, thus it was losing power. A bucket brigade of men was quickly formed, and they bailed.
By just after noon on Saturday, the fate of the Central America appeared to be hopeless. Fortunately, a ship was seen on the horizon. It was the brig Marine which drew closer to help. Capt. Herndon of the Central America ordered women and children on deck to facilitate boarding the lifeboats. Due to the rough seas, unfortunately, the Marine drifted away and was unable to help.
A few minutes past 8 p.m. a tremendous rogue wave completely engulfed the Central America, sinking it immediately.
One surviving passenger, Mr. H.H. Childs recalled, “I think some 400 or 450 souls were launched upon the ocean at the mercy of the waves.” He chronicles the fact that for several hours the group floated helplessly and silently. Then, “I saw my comrades sink fast, and at 1 o’clock that night I was nearly alone upon the ocean, some 200 miles from land.”
A total of 425 (some accounts have 426) passengers and crew lost their lives in the greatest maritime disaster in history up to that date.
This enormous loss of gold has been described as the greatest economic catastrophe in all of U.S. maritime history. It was a time when the country relied on gold to back its banking transactions. Banks closed and businesses went bankrupt triggering the Panic of 1857, a severe recession, and a lasting deep depression. The 30,000 pounds of gold aboard the Central America was equal to about 20% of the gold held in New York banks at the time. This was an era when the currency system was not regulated by the federal government, and thus was subject to highly dangerous fluctuations. Things could almost not get any worse — but they did.
The climate of the times in the America of 1857 was not a good one. We were very close to becoming the Divided States of America. The country now had three distinct sections: the Northeast, the deep South, and the West. Each section had its own society, separate culture, and politics.
Adding to this economic instability and the social and cultural diversity and the friction of “sectionalism” was political instability. The presidential election following the Panic of 1857 was only three years later. The country was divided, giving rise to divided political parties.
A brand-new party was formed in 1854, only six years prior to the election. It nominated a virtually unknown lawyer born in the backwoods of Kentucky but now practicing in Illinois. His name was Abraham Lincoln. He was promoted by the party almost like a used-car salesman as “Honest Abe.”
Since this new party had nothing to lose their platform was unabashedly and solely pro-Northern. And due to the overwhelming population of the North — 22.8 million vs. 5.5 million in the South — and by splitting the strength of the Democratic Party in half, the new Republicans won the election. And we all know the South then seceded.
Many of those divisions, scars and sectional rivalries remain in our country today over a century and a half later. The tragic shipwreck of SS Central America unwittingly and ironically was a prime catalyst to further decentralize America.
James D. “Keeper James” Charlet is the author of Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: Dramatic Rescues and Fantastic Wrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, released by Globe Pequot Press in March 2020.