What you are about to read is an email I received from Bob Evans of Hopewell, Ohio. For those of you who may not recognize his name, Bob was deeply involved in the recovery of the SS Central America in the late 1980’s. Known as the “Ship of Gold,” the Central America was lost in a violent hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas on September 12,1857. The ship went down with more than 420 passengers and crew, along with 30,000 pounds of gold. It was the worst maritime disaster up to that time. A geologist by profession, Bob acted as Chief Scientist and Historian on that project. Bob has always been a great supporter of the Fleet Society and was on the faculty of the 300th Anniversary Conference held in July, 2015 in Vero Beach.
He sent me this email last week, and although it is not directly about the loss of the 1715 Fleet, it is nevertheless relevant. Both wrecks involved great loss of life. Both wrecks involved a great loss of wealth. And, both wrecks were the result of violent weather. Bob’s email is so poignant and well stated that I wanted to share it with all who visit our site. I know you will enjoy reading this wonderful commentary.
Best Regards, Ben Costello, Director.
You are receiving this message because I know that each of you have some connection with this story, whether through personal involvement, business, scholarly research, personal interest, general curiosity, or your connections with me.
This evening as the sun sets in the eastern US I invite you to pause and observe the moment, now 160 years ago, when the steamship Central America slipped beneath the waves.
Hurricanes and associated disasters have been in the news a lot lately, but of course they are nothing new. People struggled with the irresistible forces of nature then as now. Perhaps we understand such forces better today, but still we can do little but prepare for the arrival of extreme storms, and clean up afterwards. My close involvement with the SS Central America story and my work at sea on the site has included brushes with several hurricanes and tropical storms, making me ever more mindful of the phenomenon that caused the loss of life and treasure in the first place, and of the force of nature that drew me into the fascinating work that has been the main professional focus of half my life.
The satellite image is Hurricane Hugo as seen from space the afternoon of September 21, 1989. You can see Florida, and Cape Hatteras, and the vast mass of the swirling storm between. As near as I have been able to determine, at the moment this image was captured, the eye of Hugo was very near the actual site of the sinking of the SS Central America. I was not there at this moment. On the sound advice and decisive action of our captain Bill Burlingham we had suspended our work on the the shipwreck the day before, and by this time our ship was securely berthed, in Wilmington, NC, arriving mere hours before the monstrous hurricane slammed ashore near Charleston, SC. In Wilmington we experienced tropical storm conditions, but nothing more serious. Modern tools of science and communications greatly aided Captain Bill’s decisions, and our ultimate safety.
Not so in 1857. “West Indian Cyclones” or “Equinoctial Storms” were more poorly understood. Those few mostly amateur scientists and professional mariners who compiled accounts of the same storm observed from multiple locations had determined the generally circular, counterclockwise motion of the winds in such storms. They knew also that they tended to concentrate sometime around the Autumn Equinox. But, (according to contemporary thought,) the invention of the steamship had granted humankind superiority over the ocean’s wind and waves. And so the Central America plowed forward into the Great Storm of 1857. (The naming of tropical cyclones would wait for another age.) The Great Storm of ’57 blew ashore somewhere near Wilmington, NC, and so it did not follow the exact track of Hurricane Hugo.
The Great Storm of ’57 damaged hundreds of ships and cause havoc to shipping along the southeast US coast. Hoping to learn from the experience, several measures were adopted in the months and years that followed. The concept of watertight bulkheads (interior walls) within ships began to enter the conversation in shipbuilding circles, and it was incorporated in ship design once the transition from wooden vessels to iron and steel took place in the next couple decades. Also, some of the earliest use of undersea telegraph cables extended almost instantaneous sharing of weather observations throughout the West Indies, giving the maritime industry advance warning of impending hurricanes and tropical storms.
In 1857 a “hurricane” was a mariner’s term, a wind so strong that no sail could withstand it. My studies of the multiple observations of survivors concluded that the Great Storm would be classified today as a Category I or II hurricane, although it is impossible to truly know how strong the winds were in the eyewall as it passed over the listed and crippled ship. In their desperate efforts to right the steamer the deck crew hoisted the “storm spencer,” a small triangular sail of the heaviest canvas. Two corners were cleated to the deck while the other corner was hoisted up the mast in an attempted to point the huge wooden hulk into the seas. As the ship rose to the top of a wave the spencer was blown to tatters. So, they were definitely experiencing hurricane force winds. Decades later, the various categories of wind strength were measured and quantified, and “hurricane” became the term for large tropical cyclonic storms producing sustained winds roughly in excess of 70 miles per hour. (Precise definitions vary.)
No matter the definitions, hurricanes are terrifying for the people who experience them, and none was any more so than the Great Storm of 1857, which sank the SS Central America, 150 nautical miles off the Carolina coast, 160 years ago this evening.
And so I invite you to pause for a moment, and remember.
Thank you, sincerely,