Monday, April 22

Treasures from 1857 ‘Ship of Gold’ on tour ahead of auction

Treasures recovered from a shipwreck that’s been at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean since 1857 are now on tour before going up for auction in the fall.

From a pair of 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 shipwreck 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 US maritime history and contributed to a global panic.

Second, to treasure hunter who found the ship against all odds in 1988 became enmeshed in a decades-long legal battle over the gold before he became a fugitive of the law and eventually ended up in a jail cell.

As the gold and the treasure hunter stole the headlines over the years, hundreds of artifacts belonging to the people that perished in the shipwreck have been sitting in storage.

USA TODAY got an exclusive first look at the artifactswhich include personal letters, toiletries, a saloon sign, a pistol in its holster and a photograph nicknamed “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 in charge of restoring the artifacts for a tour and an auction.

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Tommy Thompson, right, talks with Bob Evans on the Arctic Discoverer as they departed Norfolk, Va., on June 18, 1991. Thompson led a group that recovered millions of dollars worth of sunken treasure only to end up involved in court cases brought by dozens of insurance companies laying claim to the treasure.

Evans hadn’t been able to truly inspect each item since they were recovered in the early 1990s and on another expedition in 2014.

What he discovered were hundreds of little slices of life.

“It’s been fascinating,” he said in May when the artifacts first went on display at an Old West show outside Sacramento. “The harder you look the more detail you start finding in stuff. Little, silly human stuff.”

For instance, among the artifacts is a key to the “L Wine Room,” though Evans doesn’t know what the “L” stands for.

“It could be ‘lower,’ it could be ‘left,’ but that key was heavily used because it’s out of kilter,” he said. “Either than or somebody turned it very hard. It’s often little forensic things like that, that’s the stuff that gets me going.”

A lithograph by artist John Childs depicts the “Wreck of the Steamship Central America.”

As Evans has worked with the items, he’s often thought of the people who owned them, the people who had been on their way to New York from San Francisco only to succumb to a storm 500 nautical miles short of their destination.

“The SS Central America site is an accidental time capsule and as such it is a perfect glimpse into the time of these people,” Evans said. “This was the California Gold Rush time… It’s three years before the Civil War and that sort of unrest. So we had people from all over the country who had traveled to California and now were going home with their wealth.”

Besides their historical value, some of the items are worth quite a bit monetarily.

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As a USA TODAY Network photographer captured pictures and video of the artifacts, an armed security guard in a bulletproof vest watched closely. Each of the items ranges in value from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million.

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