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RD Archives: Salvage race for gold

BY David Reed

9th Jan 2024 Life

6 min read

RD Archives: Salvage race for gold
The world had forgotten the century-old ship—and its gleaming cargo—buried on the Atlantic floor. Against all odds, a young engineer set out to claim it
When he was a schoolboy in Defiance, Ohio, Tommy Thompson built his own scuba-diving gear. Often he and his best friend, Barry Schatz, would talk of leaving home for the Florida Keys in search of adventure. The dream never left Thompson. After graduating with a mechanical-engineering degree in 1975, he ended up in Key West, where Schatz was working as a reporter. Thompson asked where he might find a job that offered adventure of the sort they had yearned for as boys.
"Go down where the shrimp boats dock," Schatz told him. "You'll find a treasure hunter."
"The dream of adventure never left Thompson"
Mel Fisher had found the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Seiiora de Atocha two years before, but much of the ship's treasure was still lost on the ocean floor. Fisher hired Thompson on the spot, and the young engineer began diving daily into the crystal waters off the Marquesas Keys with his metal-detection equipment.
Back in Key West at weekends, Thompson heard tales of other treasure-laden shipwrecks. To him the most intriguing was the loss of the steamer Central America, one of the great US shipping disasters.
The story had its beginnings in 1848, when gold was discovered in California. To avoid the perilous overland journey to and from the mines, people would go by ship (crossing the Isthmus of Panama by train). Central America, a 272-foot wooden vessel, plied the Atlantic side of the route.

Weigh anchor

The ship had completed 43 round trips when it set sail from Panama for New York in September 1857. Press accounts indicate that there were 476 passengers and 102 crew on board. The cargo included some three tons of gold on its way to New York banks and businesses. Prospectors who had struck it rich also lugged on board gold in trunks, and wealthy passengers carried gold coins and bars.
Wreck of the Central America. J. Childs (engraver & publisher), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
On Thursday, September 10, seven days out of Panama, Central America was buffeted by raging winds, as a major hurricane bore down on the ship. By Friday she had taken on huge quantities of water, which killed the fires in the boilers, robbing her of power. On Saturday a small sailing vessel, Marine of Boston, responded to distress signals and was able to rescue 100 people—mostly women and children.
Finally, around 8pm, Central America gave three great lurches and went down, stern first. Fifty-three men were rescued; 425 people died.

Lost at sea

For months, the sinking was front-page news. Then, as the Civil War loomed, Central America was pushed from the public's mind. In time, all memory of it vanished—except in the lore of treasure seekers and historians.
Thompson became obsessed by the story of Central America. He pored over hundreds of old clippings on the wreck and bought every book he could find on salvage techniques. He gave a talk about Central America to a group of Columbus, Ohio, businessmen in 1984. Later, several prominent citizens helped form the Columbus-America Discovery Group, whose original 130 investors put up 1.4 million dollars to get an expedition started.
Thompson hired his pal Barry Schatz and a neighbour, geologist Bob Evans, as directors of the project. After a careful study, the men concluded that Central America must be resting roughly 200 miles east of Charleston, South Carolina. But the ocean in the 1,400-square-mile target area was up to two miles deep.
Until the 1970s, it was nearly impossible to search for wrecks so far down. Then came the commercial application of side-scanning sonar, a torpedo-shaped device towed deep underwater that bounces sound signals at an angle off the ocean floor. Still, no one had ever retrieved artefacts from a wooden vessel at such a depth. The only answer, Thompson concluded, was an unmanned vehicle to be controlled from a ship.
"Thompson became obsessed by the story of Central America"
By the winter of 1986, Thompson had designed and built his "recovery vehicle," which he named Nemo after the captain in Jules Verne's classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Nemo was six feet wide, nine feet high, 12 feet long, and it bristled with gadgetry. There were powerful lights, thrusters, television cameras and two arms designed to pick up items as small as a coin.
The group put to sea in a chartered ship in the summer of 1987. Earlier sonar surveys had found two promising sites, and the crew lowered Nemo over one of them on 10,000 feet of inch-thick steel cable.
On colour monitors in the ship's control room, Thompson could see what Nemo encountered as it inched along the sloping, featureless undersea plain called the Blake Ridge. Almost immediately he spotted small, black lumps scattered across the ocean floor. Coal! Central America had burned anthracite coal.
The men were elated, sure that they were in the right place. But before they could send Nemo down again, another vessel approached. A boat chartered by Columbia University was also looking for Central America. Thompson had to establish his claim under marine law. He put a lump of coal in a canister and had it flown by his ship's supply plane to lawyer Richard Robol who rushed the coal to Judge Richard Kellam. He issued a temporary restraining order giving Thompson's group exclusive salvage rights to the area it was exploring.
Thompson continued the search, but found only more coal and an occasional small artefact, including a jar of cold cream. He was baffled. What had happened to the ship's vast treasure?

Vessel ahoy

Thompson had commissioned new computer software to enhance the earlier sonar pictures. When the group now reviewed its data, suddenly visible was a ship-size shape 35 miles south-west of where the men had been looking.
In late August 1988, they were back on the seas in a new vessel, Arctic Discoverer. Again they lowered Nemo. Suddenly crew member John Doering shouted, "You know what that is!"
On the TV monitors, distinctly outlined by Nemo's lights was a giant side-wheel lying in the sediment. Could they actually have come upon the vessel's most dramatic feature on the first pass? The operators brought Nemo up a bit; it crossed over what were clearly ship's engines. The men were silent as the next object flickered on their screens: a second side-wheel.
"It's like seeing a ghost," said Barry Schatz quietly. Shipworms had eaten away so many of Central America's timbers that the vessel looked like a collapsed barn.
"Could they actually have come upon the vessel's most dramatic feature on the first pass?"
Soon Nemo came upon a bronze bell two feet in diameter. Stamped on it were the words Thompson knew from his research would be there: MORGAN IRON WORKS NEW YORK 1853. This was final confirmation that they had located Central America—important to the nervous investors who had by now invested eight million dollars in the project. Reassured, they provided more money to continue the search.
On the evening of October 20, 1988, Nemo's cameras spotted two gold coins and a gold bar. But as a shout went up in the control room, the bridge called: "Squall coming!" Nemo retrieved the coins and the bar, but the storm hit before it could be secured.
Torrential rains and 15-foot seas battered the recovery vehicle, and it was damaged when it crashed to the deck. Thompson had to call it quits for the year.
The vessel was not back in the hunt until late summer of 1989, delayed again by mechanical problems. One early September morning, the crew lowered Nemo and spotted a round, yellow-covered object on the monitors. "Let's dust the area," said Thompson. The crew turned on one of Nemo's thrusters, which blew the sediment away. The ocean floor was covered with gold.
The crew worked day and night, cataloguing each piece. After a month of diving, Nemo recovered 2,600 coins and bars—a ton of gold. As bullion alone, the haul was worth more than 10.5 million dollars. But its collectors' value will be much greater. Just one 50 dollar coin, for example, was valued at 15,000 dollars.
The threat of Hurricane Hugo chased Arctic Discoverer to the North Carolina coast in September. Since at least two more tons of gold (as well as an unknown amount carried by passengers) remained in the wreck, the search would resume the following year.
But now Thompson and friends faced obstacles ashore. Lawyers for some large US and British insurance companies argued before Judge Kellam that their clients had paid out claims on the ship's gold and were therefore the rightful owners. Lawyers for Columbia University and supporters claimed that Columbia's oceanographers had discovered Central America in 1984, and offered photographs of sonar images as evidence.
Thompson's lawyer pointed out that the insurance companies had no official records to indicate how much had been paid and to whom. As for Columbia University, Robol argued that the institution neither helped Thompson find the wreck, nor did anything to recover the gold.
On August 14, 1990, Judge Kellam ruled that Thompson and his colleagues were the rightful owners of the treasure. (The decision has been appealed against.)
In June 1990, Thompson and Arctic Discoverer headed back to sea. He estimates there is still so much gold left in Central America that the team will be busy for at least two years recovering it all.
After that? Says Tommy Thompson with a smile, "There are other ships out there."
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in March 1992. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently.
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