The S.S. Central America
The Last Voyage
Sunken Treasure

"Steamer day" in San Francisco-the day of departure or arrival of one of the biweekly Panama Route ships-was always a lively occasion, with bands playing, flags flying, and enthusiastic crowds seeing off departing friends or greeting new arrivals. The morning of Thursday, august 220, 1857 was no exception, as more than 400 eastbound passengers and their friends and well-wishers excitedly crowded the Vallejo Street Wharf. At the dock was the SS Sonora, the ship that would take the passengers on the first leg of their journey to New York.

It was a colorful group, representing every level of San Francisco society. First-cabin passengers included Billy Birch, the 26-year-old star of the famous San Francisco Minstrels, and his vivacious wife, Virginia. The young couple had exchanged wedding vows the day before. Another honeymooning couple, Adeline and Ansel Easton, arrived at the wharf directly from their morning wedding, escorted by an entourage of high-society friends. Addie was the sister of the banker Darius Ogden Mills, who later founded the Bank of California and became one of the richest men in the state. There were other prominent San Francisco residents making the voyage as well.

Other passengers, less prosperous (or perhaps more thrifty) had purchased steerage tickets. Among them were 17-year-old Henry T. O'Conner, a printer, and his widowed mother. George Dawson, a free African American who had been working as a hotel porter, was also heading east. Oliver Perry Manlove, a veteran of three adventurous years in the gold fields at the young age of 26, was making his first journey by sea. With him, Manlove carried a sheaf of poems he had written describing his adventures.

The fare for any type of cabin was not cheap. In 1857, a first-cabin ticket on the Panama Route cost $300 and a second-cabin ticket $250. Steerage accommodations sold for $150, which was the equivalent of a month's wages for the average California gold prospector, who made about $5 a day.

Thus, even those in steerage class had money, and in 1857, money meant gold. Tons of the precious metals that made up the shipments on the Panama Route. Some of the travelers entrusted their personal gold to the purser, and others carried gold in closely held personal luggage or in money belts and pouches.

On September 3, the Sonora reached Panama City. Soon thereafter the passengers were transferred to the Panama Railroad for the four-hour journey by land. Awaiting the travelers, cargo, and mail at the Aspinwall dock was the ship that would carry them the rest of the way: the United States Mail Steamship Central America. Built for the Panama route during 1852-1853, at the New York shipyard of William H. Webb, the United States Mail Steamship Company. Originally christened the George Law after one of the firm's owners, the recently renamed ship had completed 43 round-trip voyages between New York and Aspinwall during its four years of operation.

Forty-three-year-old William Lewis Herndon of the United States navy commanded the vessel in compliance with the laws requiring all steamers carrying the US Mail to be captained by a Navy officer. Commander Herndon had achieved national fame in 1851 for leading the first scientific expedition to explore the Amazon River from its source to its mouth. Passengers no doubt looked forward to hearing about his adventures firsthand.

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