Bell from Sunken ‘Ship of Gold’ Returns to the U.S. Navy

In early September 1857, the SS Central America, a 280-foot sidewheel steamer, left the Panamanian port of Colón bound for New York City with 477 passengers and 101 crew onboard – and almost 15 tons of California Gold Rush gold. 

Only a few short days into the voyage, the ship encountered a Category 2 hurricane off the southern U.S. coast. For three tumultuous days, the vessel was battered by wind and waves. Its sails tattered and its hull hemorrhaging water, the SS Central America floundered and then sank. While 153 passengers, primarily women and children, found refuge in lifeboats, another 425 souls perished beneath the waters.

Wreck of the Steamship Central America Lithograph

Image: "Wreck of the Steamship Central America," a 19th-century lithograph by prolific artist and cartoonist John Childs. Courtesy: The Mariners’ Museum and Park. 

The ship was under the command of Cmdr. William Lewis Herndon (1813-1857), who sacrificed his life at the helm so that others might have more time to evacuate. He was last seen bowing in prayer as the ‘Ship of Gold’ sank 150 miles off the coast of North Carolina.

There’s gold and bells down there!

It wasn’t until September 1988, that a marine salvage group using remotely operated underwater vehicles happened across the steamer’s wreckage. As one might imagine, the exultation of the find spurred the recovery of gold and artifacts. While the expedition could not haul everything to the surface, an estimated $100 to $150 million worth of gold was recovered, along with the ship’s bronze bell.

Submerged Bell from the SS Central America

Image: Using a remotely operated underwater vehicle in 1988, marine explorers capture this first look at the bell from the SS Central America under 7,200 feet of Atlantic Ocean. Courtesy: California Gold Marketing Group.

Measuring approximately 2’ tall and wide, the bell is larger than most ship’s bells of the era. Cameras on the submersible could read part of the engraved lettering: MORGAN IRON WORKS NEW YORK 1853, providing definitive proof that the shipwreck was indeed that of the SS Central America.

The 268-pound bronze bell eventually fell into the hands of Dwight Manley of Brea, California, who donated the bell back to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Fittingly, the dedication ceremony marking the bell’s return was scheduled just prior to the Herndon Monument Climb – an annual tradition when plebes (freshmen) form a human pyramid to reach the top of the vegetable shortening-covered 21-foot monument to the SS Central America’s lost commander.

“Commander Herndon’s story reminds us of our responsibility and obligation as naval officers to keep fighting for our ship and our shipmates all the way to the end,” said Vice Adm. Sean Buck, Superintendent of the Naval Academy, during the May 23, 2022, rededication event with descendants of Cmdr. Herndon in attendance.

Bell Rededication Ceremony at US Naval Academy

Image: Members of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1983 pose around the SS Central America bell during the rededication ceremony, with the vegetable shortening-covered 21-foot monument to Cmdr. Herndon in the background, May 23, 2022. Courtesy: U.S. Naval Academy.

Eventually, the bell will find a permanent home suspended between two granite plinths, meant to allude to the geometry of the nearby monument. The display is being donated by the Academy’s Class of 1983. It is hoped that the sound of the bell – among the last sounds Cmdr. Herndon heard as he went down with the ship – will inspire the same spirit of fortitude and sacrifice in the next generation of midshipmen.

Cover image: The U.S. Naval Academy holds a dedication ceremony for the SS Central America bell prior to the annual Herndon Monument Climb on May 23, 2022. Courtesy: U.S. Naval Academy.