Treasures salvaged from a shipwreck at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean since 1857 are now on tour before being auctioned in the fall.
From work pants and wedding rings to letters and a first edition of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the artifacts represent both a snapshot of American life during the California Gold Rush and the human tragedy behind the sinking of the SS Central America.
Four hundred and twenty-five people drowned when the ship sank 7,000 feet below sea level during a hurricane off the Carolina coast.
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The tragedy has long been overshadowed by two facts.
First, the ship was laden with tons of gold, the loss of which made it the greatest economic disaster in American maritime history and contributed to a global panic.
Second, a treasure hunter who found the ship against all odds in 1988 found himself embroiled in a decades-long legal battle over gold before becoming a fugitive from the law and ultimately ending up in a jail cell. .
While gold and the treasure hunter have made headlines over the years, hundreds of artifacts belonging to those who perished in the sinking are in storage.
USA TODAY got an exclusive first look at the artifacts, which include personal letters, toiletries, a saloon sign, a holstered gun and a photograph dubbed “The Mona Lisa of the Deep.”
“It’s such a time capsule,” said Bob Evans, who was part of the original team that discovered the SS Central America 35 years ago and was tasked with restoring the artifacts for a tour and auction. .
Evans hadn’t been able to truly inspect every item since they were recovered in the early 1990s and during another expedition in 2014.
What he found were hundreds of little slices of life.
“It was fascinating,” he said in May when the artifacts were first displayed at a Wild West show outside Sacramento. “The closer you look, the more detail you start to find in things. Stupid little human things.”
For example, among the artifacts is a key to the “L Wine Room”, although Evans does not know what the “L” stands for.
“It could be ‘lower’, it could be ‘left’, but that key was used heavily because it’s off-center,” he said. “Either someone made it really difficult. It’s often little forensic things like that, that’s what keeps me going.”
As Evans worked with the objects, he often thought of the people who owned them, the people who were on their way to New York from San Francisco only to succumb to a storm 500 nautical miles from their destination.
“The SS Central America site is an accidental time capsule and as such is a perfect glimpse into the era of these people,” Evans said. “It was the days of the California Gold Rush… It was three years before the Civil War and that kind of unrest. So we had people from all over the country who had traveled to California and were now going home them with their wealth.”
In addition to their historical value, some objects have a fairly high monetary value.
As a USA TODAY Network photographer captured photos and video of the artifacts, an armed security guard wearing a body armor kept a close watch. The value of each item ranges from a few hundred thousand dollars to over a million dollars.
Where to find the treasures of the “Ship of Gold” on tour
The artifacts will be made available to the public this weekend during the first of a three-city tour that may be expanded before being auctioned.
The first display will be Friday through Sunday at the National Antique Bottle Convention in Reno, Nevada. The artifacts will then be showcased at the Chicago World’s Fair of Money in Rosemont, Illinois from August 16-20, before heading to the HardRock Summit 2022 Gem and Jewelry Show in Denver from September 8-11.
All items will be auctioned in October and November, although exact dates have not been announced. Keep an eye on the auction site for details.
As the treasures of the “Ship of Gold” come back to life, the man tasked with finding them remains behind bars for a sixth year.
Deep-sea explorer Tommy Thompson has developed new technology to locate and recover objects from the SS Central America. He turned 70 as he sat in his Michigan jail cell in April.
Thompson is being held in contempt of court and fined $1,000 a day for each day he does not answer government questions about the whereabouts of 500 gold coins. He’s racked up more than $2 million in penalties and there’s no indication he’s about to be released.