Ship of Gold

BY Simon Gonzalez

It began as a quixotic search for a lost ship and lost gold a treasure hunt combining history discovery adventure and science. It featured a genuine American hero named Tommy Thompson a man hailed as a visionary who overcame the odds to accomplish the impossible — finding a shipwreck that had been lost for more than 130 years and recovering tons of treasure from the depths of the ocean floor.

It is a tale that in the early heady days of discovery and recovery heavily involved Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington.

It is a tale that took a tragic plot twist degenerating from a remarkable and romantic story of scientists breaking barriers and treasure hunters recovering lost gold into one of legal battles greed fugitives and prison.

The hero now sits in jail accused of defrauding his investors. The man once described as “one of the greatest adventurers since the Wright brothers” was dubbed “a master of misdirection and deceit” by the judge who put him away.

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

The 280-foot side-wheel steamer was carrying nearly 600 passengers when she sank in a hurricane about 160 miles off the Carolina coast. It was America’s worst peacetime sea disaster with 425 lives lost.

But what captured the public’s imagination was the gold. Up to 21 tons of it mined in the waning days of the California Gold Rush. It had been shipped from San Francisco to the west coast of Panama sent by rail to the east coast and loaded onto the steamship bound for New York.

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

In the early 1980s new technologies in sonar and undersea operations made recovery at least theoretically possible. Thompson an engineer working at Battelle in Columbus Ohio had taken interest in deep-water shipwrecks as a hobby. He thought he could find the sunken ship. He put together a crew and raised the needed capital.

The Columbus-America Discovery Group used computer models to predict where the Central America might be after decades of being subjected to undersea currents and employed side-scan sonar technology to scan a 1 400-square-mile section of the ocean floor.

In 1987 after the team had spent 100 days at sea they found the SS Central America.

While the adventurers were out on the ocean searching for the wreck they were supplied by a seaplane based out of Air Wilmington the private plane terminal located at Wilmington International Airport.

At first Air Wilmington president Bill Cherry didn’t know the seaplane belonged to a group hunting for lost treasure.

“They were very tight-lipped about the things that were going on ” Cherry says. “We were just told it was ocean research.”

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

“The supply boat stayed there on the outer dock ” says Bond the former general manager at Seapath. “The seaplane could land on water or land. They kept it out at the airport.”

Air Wilmington and Seapath were convenient to the wreck site — “it was 167 miles from our ramp ” Cherry says — but the locations were chosen for other reasons. Because of the mandate for secrecy the team split the operation up and down the coast. Charleston was home port for the Arctic Discoverer a 180-foot former Canadian fishing boat outfitted as a research vessel. The gold they would discover would be taken to Norfolk Virginia.

“They were trying to keep a very very low profile and Wilmington seemed like a good place ” Cherry says.

Even if he didn’t know that Thompson and Co. were looking for the famous ship of gold Cherry did get word of some of the cutting-edge technology being used.

“That was the first time I had even seen or heard of Global Positioning System (GPS) ” he says. “They were renting it from the federal government. They did some magnificent tracking to find out where the wreck was.”

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

McAfee heard from a friend of a friend that the expedition needed a pilot.

“My story is they were looking for the world’s greatest pilot. But she was out of town so they called me ” McAfee says. “Seaplane time is hard to come by. That was the opportunity that fascinated me.”

His versatility helped land him the job.

“Lance had a captain’s license and a pilot’s license. That’s why they hired him ” Bond says.

Like many on the team he took the job without knowing all of the details.

“I was not fully briefed ” he says. “They didn’t say it’s a shipwreck. I was told it was a deep ocean research project. It might have been a month or two before I had the pieces put together.”

McAfee became good friends with Bond and Cherry but after he found out the true nature of the mission he couldn’t discuss it.

“The secrecy that was a big deal ” Bond says. “Lance didn’t talk to us about it. We wondered what they were doing out there. After it became known Lance would tell us about what they were doing.”

When he was told the true object of the research McAfee wanted to make sure the focus would be in the right place.

“The party line — and I truly accepted it and embraced it — was we did not want the term ‘treasure hunter’ used or spoken ” McAfee says. “We were doing research. The shipwreck was a huge human tragedy.”

McAfee used the seaplane to fly equipment out to the Arctic Discoverer which would be at the wreck site for up to one month at a time.

“It was spare parts and ‘please God bring us a new movie ‘” McAfee says. “I had a logistics guy who would secure material — hydraulic valves circuit boards cigarettes toothpaste mail and magazines. If it was small in volume I would take it out in the seaplane and drop it.”

It wasn’t a high-tech delivery. The supplies were put in sealed barrels that could float.

“From takeoff to the ship was a touch under two hours ” McAfee says. “We’d prop the door open and what I called my bombardier would pitch the stuff out. I would get 20 feet off the water door open flaps down stall warning screaming. As he was throwing it out I would be making the turn to come back for the second run.”

Food and bulkier supplies were taken out to the rig on the 56-foot aluminum-hulled boat that was docked at Seapath Marina. McAfee couldn’t pull alongside the Arctic Discoverer. The size difference was a factor. So was the fact that the larger vessel was continually moving because it couldn’t anchor in the deep water.

Keeping the ship over the wreck site was another of the technological achievements.

“They tied the nav into the ship and had two engines that could pivot ”

Cherry says. “They developed a propulsion system that would hover over the wreck for a month at a time. That was the brilliant part of it. It was quite impressive what they were doing. It was quite a scientific undertaking.”

After the supplies were unloaded McAfee’s boat was loaded with weeks’ worth of trash. The cargo was covered by tarps creating a suspicious profile that attracted the attention of the Coast Guard a couple of times on the run back to Wrightsville Beach.

“We’d be coming back with these tarps covering everything ” McAfee says. “The Coast Guard would board my boat pull the tarp back and here’s all these trash bags filled with garbage.”

At least that’s the way McAfee remembers it. Cherry has a different story. His version is that the Coast Guard often had to tow the boat back to port.

“The thing broke down all the time ” he says. “The Restless Spirit was the real name. We called it the Worthless Spirit. They were real good at buying stuff at a bargain that didn’t work very well.”

That’s ironic because while the Restless Spirit was limping back to Wrightsville Beach amazing things were taking place at the wreck site.

Thompson’s team designed and built a remotely controlled submersible vehicle they called Nemo that was capable of delicate intricate work and performing precise tasks thousands of feet below the surface.

Nemo recorded more than 1 000 hours of bottom time between 1988 and 1991 recovering gold and artifacts of historic significance. The team even discovered a new species of Benthoctopus a type of deep-sea octopus.

McAfee remembers the moment when he got word that the first of the gold was brought up.

“That was an exhilarating exciting moment for several reasons ” he says. “We had proof that we were on a shipwreck with gold on board and had the capability to recover it.”

In those early days the thrill was more about the accomplishment than the treasure.

“The cool moments were when we developed new technology for the robot and saw it work ” McAfee says. “That was the thrill to me. I didn’t like the term treasure hunter then and still don’t.”

But it was the gold — flakes lumps coins ingots — that made the headlines. Life magazine called it “the greatest treasure ever found.” Thompson became a celebrity. People magazine described him as “the kind of guy who could fix a rocket ship with two paper clips and a piece of twine � a genuine America hero.”

Cherry eventually found out the true nature of the quest and his involvement grew beyond hosting the seaplane. Some secrets remained though.

“In the winter months they paid us to go out there and do reconnaissance to make sure no one was jumping their claim ” he says. “They didn’t give us the exact coordinates but would give us the corners of a box. Even when they were working the wreck they were worried about pirates.”

He got to see the gold when he was invited to a public exhibit in Norfolk Virginia.

“It was quite impressive ” Cherry says. “I’d never seen that much gold. You’d see everything from a little flake to a huge gold bar.”

Thompson’s Columbus-America Discovery Group had won a court decision that gave them the right to salvage the shipwreck. More legal challenges followed as millions of dollars worth of gold was recovered. Then a group of American and British companies that had insured the ship’s cargo more than a century ago claimed rights to the treasure. The work was halted.

While the fate of the SS Central America wreck site and treasure was tied up in court many on the crew wanted to take their technology and scientific achievements and apply them to other wreck sites. But McAfee says Thompson became sidetracked by the thought of books and movies succumbing to the fame monster if not the greed monster.

“To have Harvey [Thompson’s nickname because of his rabbit-like front teeth] screw it up is very disappointing ” McAfee says. “We had so many opportunities to develop technologies. They hated it when I got on the phone during a conference call and said ‘We are a diving company let’s go dive.’ I didn’t care about potential movies or books or exhibits.”

A group of investors sued Thompson in 2005 claiming they had not received the returns they were promised. He dropped out of sight. In 2012 he missed a hearing related to the suit by the investors. An arrest warrant was issued. The treasure hunter became a fugitive.

He proved to be as elusive as the site of the SS Central America had been managing to evade capture for years. He and his girlfriend secretly lived in a secluded Florida mansion for six years. They moved on when they thought they had been recognized and he finally was arrested in a hotel in 2015.

Thompson received two years in prison and a $250 000 fine for missing the 2012 hearing. The clock on that sentence won’t start until he answers questions about the whereabouts of 500 coins minted from bars of recovered gold with an estimated value of $2.5 million. He claims not to know where they are.

While Thompson was on the lam other court battles were going on to determine who had rights to bring up what remained of the treasure. The contract eventually was awarded to Odyssey Marine Exploration which began operations in April 2014. News releases on the company’s website say that by the end of the year it recovered more than 15 500 silver and gold coins 45 gold ingots gold dust nuggets jewelry and other artifacts worth “tens of millions of dollars.”

Then those efforts abruptly halted as yet more lawsuits made their way through the legal system.

It’s uncertain just how much gold was recovered. Reports variously estimate the haul from $300 million to $500 million. There’s speculation that as much as $97 million more remains on the ocean floor although McAfee doubts that.

Thompson languishes in jail in Delaware County Ohio. If there is anything left of the gold it remains at the bottom of the sea. The court battles continue.

It would be a shame if that became the enduring legacy of the tale of the lost and found ship of gold. McAfee hopes that is not the case. He is proud of his role in the expedition and wants the focus off the gold and the greed and onto the incredible achievements — scientific and otherwise — of the team.

“The opportunities I had the people I worked with it was absolutely terrific ” McAfee says. “I was promised $2.1 million to $2.3 million as my piece and never saw anything and never will. I have no qualms whatsoever. I am satisfied with what I learned and what I was able to do. On the technical side it was a home run. On the business side a dismal failure.”

The Sinking of the SS Central America

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 precious 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 Col�n) 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 nuggets and gold dust stored in money 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.

After four days at sea the ship encountered a category two hurricane 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 violently 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 passengers 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 disaster 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 namedUSSHerndonin his honor as was the town ofHerndon 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.