SS Central America

Known as the Ship of Gold, the S.S. Central America — at 280 feet long — was a sidewheel steamer that sank during a hurricane in September 1857. The storm brought death to 425 of the ship’s 578 passengers and crew. It also took 30,000 pounds of gold to Davy Jones’ Locker.

If you’re a history buff, you’ve maybe heard of an event called the Panic of 1857.

Firstly, it had nothing to do with a disease or a shortage of toilet paper. It was an episode in history when the world economy took a dark turn for the worse. Not only did it affect those living in and working in eastern cities, but the yeoman farmer on the Minnesota frontier. Suddenly, his cash crops became worthless, and his bank notes were only as valuable as the paper they were printed on. In addition, the enterprising settlers that depended on the growth of new settlements would see the surge of immigration to Minnesota slow to a lowly trickle.

A great many factors went into this global depression, but in America it was due in large part to the sinking of a ship off the East Coast — a spark that ignited a massive nest of tinder.

It was the fall of 1857, and the S.S. Central America had left the Colon Port in Panama and was sailing to New York. Aboard the ship were 477 passengers and 101 crew members. The the ship left Panama on Sept. 3, stopped in Havana, Cuba, a few days, and by Sept. 9 was off the coast of the Carolinas.

It was hurricane season, and a Category 2 storm was making its way down the coast. By Sept. 11, the force of wind from the storm had accelerated to more than 100 mph. The Central America tried pushing on out of the storm, yet her sails were shredded by the wind. It wasn't long before she began taking on water.

A leak in the ship's side was worsening, and salt water began filling the bilge. The Central America was fitted with a boiler, however, and the mechanical bilge pump began dumping the water back into the sea. The pump wouldn't last long, though. Early in the day, the pump was laboring to keep up. By noon, the boiler had given out and the ship began filling with water.

The crew drew the U.S. flag up the pole, flying it upside down as a distress signal, yet no one came to their aid. A bucket brigade was formed out of the crew and passengers, but it was a losing battle.

Though the situation was terrible, the ship made it through Sept. 11. The next morning two ships were spotted. As 153 passengers — mostly women and children — made their way to the ship's lifeboats, the remaining 324 passengers stayed aboard the slowly sinking ship. At 8 p.m. that evening, the Central America sank to the bottom of the sea with 425 people aboard.

As people mourned the loss of life, another situation was at hand. Aboard the ship was just under 10 tons of gold prospected during the California Gold Rush. It, too, would be lost at the bottom of the sea.

Banks in New York were eagerly awaiting the shipment, as factors in other parts of the world threatened the global economy. Because of the loss of gold, banks in the U.S. hovered above complete failure, greatly affecting credit in the United States. This, among other factors such as a global overproduction of grain, caused the Panic of 1857.

Just a couple of years prior, settlers were starting to pour into the new Minnesota Territory. With the panic at hand, the flow of settlers slowed. This didn't stop land speculators and real-estate moguls from trying to lure settlers, however, as Minnesota became a land coined as the "Cure for the Panic," a place where few banks existed and a subsistence lifestyle could be enjoyed.

In McLeod County, the flow of settlers did not return to normal for nearly a decade. As the panic began to wane in the 1860s, Civil War broke out and called many of the nation’s young men into action. In addition, Minnesota was facing its own war with the Dakota Sioux, one being broadcast in journals out east and deterring prospective settlers from moving to the state, especially to areas where the fighting was fierce such as McLeod County.

The Dakota War lasted six weeks, and for the most part ended shortly after it began. The Civil War, however, would rage until 1865. When it was over, the influx of new settlers resumed as it was prior to the financial crisis as young men, veterans of the war, began moving west to build new lives and escape the hardships of the past decade. It marked the end of the Panic of 1857.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. During this time of uncertainty, the museum is closed and programming is canceled. For more information, email Haines at director@mcleodhistory.org.

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