The listing and rusted vessel is what you’d expect to see at a scrapyard. What’s not readily apparent, though, is that beneath the cracked paint and broken windows lies an epic tale of disaster and riches, disappearance and discovery, greed and justice. And the story is far from over.
The Research Vessel Arctic Discoverer was the workhorse of the successful effort to find and salvage the greatest shipwrecked treasure in United States history. Now, almost three decades later, the forlorn ship languishes, moored to a boat yard south of Jacksonville, Florida, the victim of its own success.
The story begins in September 1857, when the SS Central America, a sidewheel steamer bound for New York from Panama, found itself at the mercy of a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina. On board were 38,000 pieces of U.S. mail, 578 passengers and crew, and tons of California gold–estimates have ranged higher than 40,000 pounds of it–worth hundreds of millions of dollars today.
Sinking of the SS Central America, J. Childs, National Maritime Museum, London
“On Friday, the storm raged fearfully,” recalled survivor H. H. Childs a week after the disaster. He was among the passengers who bailed furiously all day and night as water spilled into the hull and extinguished Central America’s boilers. “The fatal Saturday came at last, but brought nothing but increased fury in the gale.”
“At 7 o’clock we saw no possibility of keeping afloat much longer,” Childs remembered. He had just grabbed a life preserver when “a tremendous sea swept over us and the steamer went down.”
Childs was lucky, one of the 153 people on board to have survived. The sea swallowed 425 souls, not to mention a vessel laden with riches beyond wildest imaginings.
Flash forward to the 1980s, when shipwreck and treasure hunter Tommy Thompson made a concerted effort to locate the wreck–and the gold–that had been resting on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for 130 years. Investors predicted glittering returns and poured funds into Thompson’s venture.
The expedition launched aboard the R/V Arctic Discoverer, an erstwhile fishing vessel that had been twice renamed and retrofitted with all the gadgetry an underwater treasure hunter could need, including sonar, GPS and an unmanned submarine called Nemo.
Against long odds, Thompson and his crew struck gold and eventually recovered an estimated $50 million worth, all made possible by the Arctic Discoverer and its companion sub Nemo. The find was the subject of the book, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea; The History and Discovery of the World’s Richest Shipwreck by Gary Kinder.
With so much as stake, though, legal challenges poured in soon after the historic discovery. The corporate descendants of insurance firms that had paid out claims more than a century ago wanted a cut. And investors filed suit when their promised returns weren’t forthcoming. The saga stretched on for decades.
When a judge demanded Thompson answer those charges in court in 2012, the treasure hunter was nowhere to be found. Thompson’s lawyer mustered only an anemic explanation of his client’s whereabouts: he was “at sea.”
And by “at sea,” he evidently meant Thompson was hiding with his assistant/girlfriend under assumed names in Florida, paying wads of cash for lodging and other expenses. U.S. Marshals tracked Thompson and his girlfriend down in Vero Beach, Florida earlier this year.
Legal proceedings against Thompson are ongoing. There’s still some unresolved business with this matter, the least of which involves gold coins secretly squirreled away in Belize.
Another firm, Odyssey Marine Exploration, has taken command of the SS Central America‘s recovery.
Meanwhile, the ship that launched the modern chapters of the SS Central America‘s story decays near Jacksonville–stripped, forgotten, the shell of a vessel that helped discover one of the greatest shipwrecks of all time.
If you can find the R/V Arctic Discoverer at Green Cove Springs south of Jacksonville, you’ll also find other abandoned history there, including an external fuel tank from the Space Shuttle program and railroad cars that came here to die: