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The SS Central America was a mail ship, part of a fleet of sidewheel steamers built to connect the new Territory of California with the rest of the country at a time before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, when there was no overland route from the East Coast. The steamships carried mail, newspapers, freight and passengers. After the discovery of gold in 1848, they also transported tons of the pre-cious metal. Travelers would go by steamer from San Francisco to the west coast of Panama, cross the isthmus by train, and then take a steamship to New York. The Central America operated on the Atlantic side. She would depart from New York Harbor on the 20th of each month, carrying about 500 passengers bound for San Francisco. A couple of weeks later, she would return with another 500 passengers from California on their way back home. On Sept. 3, 1857, the 280-foot ship left the port of Aspinwall (now Colón) under Commander William Lewis Herndon, a U.S. Navy Captain, with 477 passengers, 101 crewmembers, 38,000 pieces of mail, and tons of gold. Most of the gold was in the ship’s hold in the form of ingots and coins newly cast from mints in San Francisco. Many of the passengers, who had been away for years to seek their fortune, had their own nug-gets and gold dust, stored in money From top: Painting of the Central America. A sailing card for the clipper ship California, depicting scenes from the California gold rush. Engravings from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, October 17, 1857. belts, trunks and carpetbags. Since her christening as the SS George Law in 1853, she had made many voyages and carried one-third of all consigned gold over the Panama route. This should have been just another routine trip. Instead, it proved to be the final voyage. The ship sailed from Panama to Spanish-controlled Cuba without incident, and after overnighting in Havana she set out on September 8 for the final, five-day leg to New York. SS Central America After four days at sea, the ship encountered a category two hur-ricane off the Carolina coast. The vessel might have survived the strong winds and heavy seas, but water poured into the boiler through a leak between the side of the ship and the paddlewheel shaft. With steam pressure down and power gone, Herndon was unable to keep his ship pointed into the wind. The Central America was vio-lently tossed around. Huge waves swamped over her sides. Herndon organized a bucket brigade. Passengers and crew bailed all night, fighting against the rising water. It was no use. The ship was sinking. The Marine, a brig out of Cuba, was able to rescue 59 women and children and 41 male pas-sengers before the Central America went down. After she sank, Ellen, a Norwegian bark vessel, pulled 50 more men from the waters. Nearly nine days later, another three survivors were picked up more than 400 miles north of the shipwreck. In total, 425 people perished, including Herndon, who went down with his ship. Survivors of the disas-ter said that at the end, Herndon was in full uniform, standing by the wheelhouse with his hand on the rail, hat off and in his hand, with his head bowed in prayer. Herndon had been an explorer in addition to being a sailor; in 1851 he headed an expedition into the valley of the Amazon. He was considered a hero for his efforts in trying to save the ship, and in his actions in loading the passengers into lifeboats. Two U.S. Navy ships were later named USS Herndon in his honor, as was 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. 68 WBM july 2016


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