Originally published in the July 2016 issue of Wrightsville Beach Magazine.

The story begins in 1857, with the last voyage of the SS Central America.

The 280ft sidewheel steamer was carrying nearly 600 passengers and crew when it sank in a hurricane about 160 miles off the Carolina coast. It was America’s worst peacetime maritime disaster, with 425 lives lost. But what captured the public’s imagination was the gold. Up to 21 tons, mined at the end of the California Gold Rush.

The ship lay lost for over a century, on the ocean floor about 7,000 feet below the surface.

By the early 1980s, new technologies in sonar and underwater operations made recovery at least theoretically possible. Tommy Thompson, an engineer working at Battelle in Columbus, Ohio, assembled a team and raised the necessary capital.

The Columbus-America Discovery Group used computer models to predict where central America could be and used side-scan sonar technology to scan a 1,400 square mile section of the ocean floor.

In 1987, after 100 days at sea, they found the SS Central America.

While searching for the wreckage, the adventurers were supplied by a seaplane based at Air Wilmington, the private aircraft terminal at Wilmington International Airport.

At first, Air Wilmington President Bill Cherry was unaware that the seaplane belonged to a group searching for lost treasure.

“They were very low key,” says Cherry. “We were just told it was ocean research.”

The group also needed a berth for a supply boat, and Cherry directed them to the Seapath Yacht Club and George Bond at Wrightsville Beach.

“The supply boat sat there on the outer dock,” says Bond, the former managing director of Seapath.

Even though he didn’t know that Thompson and Co. was looking for the famous gold ship, Cherry heard about some of their advanced technologies.

“It was the first time I had seen or heard of the Global Positioning System (GPS),” he says. “They were renting it to the federal government. They did some great sightings to find out where the wreckage was.

The aircraft used during the search phase was a single-engine Seabee seaplane. After a few months, the original pilot was replaced by Lance McAfee, who brought in a larger Piaggio P. 136 L1 Royal Gull seaplane.

Like many team members, he accepted the job without knowing all the details.

“I haven’t been fully briefed,” he says. “They didn’t say it was a shipwreck. I was told it was a deep sea research project. It took maybe a month or two before I put the parts together.

When informed of the true purpose of the research, McAfee wanted to ensure that the focus would be in the right place.

“The party line – and I really accepted and took it – was that we didn’t want the term ‘treasure hunter’ to be used,” McAfee says. “We were doing research. The sinking was a huge human tragedy.

McAfee would ferry gear to the Arctic Discoverer, a 180-foot fishing boat outfitted as a research vessel that would be at the wreck site for up to a month at a time.

“It was spare parts, cigarettes, toothpaste, mail and magazines, and ‘please God, bring us a new movie,'” McAfee says. “I would take him out in the seaplane and dump him.”

It wasn’t a high-tech delivery. Supplies were placed in sealed barrels that could float.

“From takeoff to ship, it took just under two hours,” says McAfee. “We would open the door and what I called my bomber would throw the thing. I’d be 20 feet out of the water, door open, flaps down, stall warning blaring. As he threw it, I circled back for the second run.

Food and larger supplies were taken to the 56ft aluminum-hulled boat which was moored at Seapath Marina.

Keep it arctic discoverer at the wreck site was another technological achievement.

“They attached the navigation to the ship and had two motors that could rotate,” says Cherry. “They developed a propulsion system that hovered over the wreckage for a month at a time. That was the brilliant part of it. It was a pretty scientific endeavor.

Thompson’s team also designed and built a remote-controlled submersible they called Nemo, capable of delicate and intricate work and performing precise tasks thousands of feet below the surface. Nemo logged over 1,000 hours of diving between 1988 and 1991, recovering gold and historical artifacts. The team even discovered a new species of deep-sea octopus.

McAfee remembers when he learned the first of the gold medals was out.

“It was an exhilarating and exciting time,” he says. “We had proof that we were on a shipwreck with gold on board, and had the ability to recover it.”

The thrill was more about the accomplishment than the treasure.

“The most interesting moments were when we developed new technology for the robot and saw it work,” McAfee says.

But it was gold – flakes, chunks, coins, bullion – that grabbed the headlines. Life magazine called it “the greatest treasure ever found”. People magazine described Thompson as “the kind of guy who could fix a rocket with two paperclips and a piece of string…a true American hero.”

Cherry got to see the gold when he was invited to a public display in Norfolk, Virginia.

“It was pretty impressive,” says Cherry. “I had never seen so much gold. You would see everything from a small flake to a huge gold bar.

As millions of dollars worth of gold were recovered, legal challenges ensued. A group of American and British companies that had secured the ship’s cargo more than a century ago claimed the rights to the treasure. Work has stopped.

While the fate of the treasure was court-bound, many of the crew wanted to take their technology and scientific achievements and apply them to other wreck sites. But McAfee says Thompson got distracted by the thought of books and movies, succumbing to the monster of fame if not the monster of greed.

“We’ve had so many opportunities to develop technology,” McAfee says. “They hated it when I called on a conference call and said, ‘We’re a dive company, let’s go dive. I didn’t care about potential films, books or exhibitions.

A group of investors sued Thompson in 2005, claiming they had not received the promised returns. He fell out of sight. The treasure hunter had become a fugitive. In 2012, he missed a hearing related to the investor lawsuit and an arrest warrant was issued.

Thompson evaded capture until 2015, when he was arrested at a hotel in Florida. He then languished in jail in Delaware County, Ohio, held in contempt for refusing to answer questions about the missing gold coins. Other legal battles continue.

It is not known exactly how much gold was recovered. Reports variously estimate transportation at $300 million to $500 million. There is speculation that up to $97 million more remains at the bottom of the ocean.


The sinking of the SS Central America

THE SS Central America was a mail ship, part of a fleet of sidewheel steamers built to link the new territory of California with the rest of the country in an era before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, when it was not there was no land route from the east coast.

Steamboats transported mail, newspapers, freight and passengers. After the discovery of gold in 1848, they also transported tons of the precious metal.

On September 3, 1857, the 280-foot ship left the port of Aspinwall (now Colón) under the command of Commander William Lewis Herndon, a captain in the United States Navy, with 477 passengers, 101 crew, 38 000 mail pieces and tons of gold.

The ship encountered a Category 2 hurricane off the Carolina coast. Huge waves were breaking on its sides. Passengers and crew copped throughout the night, battling the rising waters. It was useless. The ship was sinking.

A total of 425 people perished, including Herndon, who sank with his ship. Survivors said that by the end, Herndon was in full uniform, standing near the wheelhouse with his hand on the rail, his hat and in his hand, his head bowed in prayer.

He was considered a hero for his efforts in trying to save the ship and for his actions in loading passengers into lifeboats. Two United States Navy ships were later named USS Herndon in his honor, as is the town of Herndon, Virginia. Two years after the sinking, his daughter Ellen married Chester Alan Arthur, but she died of pneumonia before he became the 21st President of the United States.