Columbus-America Discovery Group v. Sailing Vessel

Decision Date14 August 1990
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 87-363-N.
Citation742 F. Supp. 1327
PartiesCOLUMBUS-AMERICA DISCOVERY GROUP, INC., Plaintiff, v. The UNIDENTIFIED, WRECKED AND ABANDONED SAILING VESSEL, its engines, tackle, apparel, appurtenances, cargo, etc., located within a box defined by the following coordinates: Northern boundary — 31° 37' North latitude; Southern boundary — 31° 33' North latitude; Western boundary — 77° 2' West longitude; Eastern boundary — 76° 57' West longitude (believed to be the S.S. CENTRAL AMERICA), in rem, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Virginia

Richard T. Robol, Philip N. Davey, Robert M. Tata, Hunton & Williams, Norfolk, Va., William J. Kelly, Jr., Curtis A. Loveland, Robert W. Trafford, Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur, Columbus, Ohio, for plaintiff.

Guilford D. Ware, Crenshaw, Ware & Martin, Norfolk, Va., Douglas A. Jacobsen, Bigham, Englar, Jones & Houston, New York City, for claimants Atlantic Mut., et al.

William W. Nexsen, Stackhouse, Rowe & Smith, Norfolk, Va., John H. Reilly, Jr., Dickerson & Reilly, New York City, for Harry G. John and Jack F. Grimm.

Daniel R. Warman, John Y. Richardson, Jr., Williams, Worrell, Kelly, Greer & Frank, Norfolk, Va., for the Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York.


KELLAM, Senior District Judge.

This admiralty action filed in this Court on May 27, 1987, is an outgrowth of the tragedy of the sea which occurred September 12, 1857, when the Central America sank in the Atlantic Ocean some 160 miles due East of Charleston, South Carolina, where the Gulf Stream meets the Sargasso Sea. She was said to be one of two luxury passenger ships making a run from Aspenwall, Panama, to New York. She was a wooden-hulled, side-wheel steamship built in 1852. During the period prior to completion of the railroad from the East to the West Coast in 1869, travel from San Francisco to New York was principally by steamer to Panama, by train across the Isthmus of Panama to the port of Aspenwall, and then on to New York by steamer. Much of the gold mined in California following the gold rush of 1849 shipped or carried by passengers to the East was by the above route. The subject of this action involves gold shipped and carried by passengers over the above route.


On August 20, 1857, the Pacific Mail Steamship "Sonora" left San Francisco for Panama with a number of passengers and quantities of gold aboard. It docked at Panama on September 3rd. The passengers and gold were put upon the Panama Railroad for the three hours journey to Aspenwall. The passengers with the gold which they were carrying and the shipped gold were placed upon the side wheeler Central America. The Central America sailed at 4:00 p.m. on September 3rd for Havana. It docked at Havana on September 7th in the evening. After transfer of some passengers and cargo, it sailed on September 8th at 9:30 a.m. for New York. On the evening of the 9th, it encountered the fringe of a hurricane and sailed on into its fury. As a result of the forces of the hurricane, a leak in the ship developed on the morning of the 11th and by 2:00 p.m. of that day, the fire in the boilers was extinguished by the influx of water from the leak. With the continuation of the storm, efforts of the crew and passengers in bailing the ship failed to keep her afloat. Many passengers were transferred by the life boats to two passing steamers, and some others were hauled from the water hours after the Central America sank.

News of the tragedy was collected from survivors. Newspapers over several areas of the world collected and published stories of the sinking. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper published in New York for October 3rd, 1857, reported that when the Central America left Havana for New York, it carried 492 passengers exclusive of the crew. Of that number, 166 were rescued and 336 lost their lives. Many of the passengers were gold miners returning to the East to invest their findings, and others to collect their families and return to California. He further recorded that the Central America was the richest ship, passengers and cargo considered, that was ever engulfed in the waves of the sea, when her rich freight of gold was lost.

The Chicago Tribune, in an article of September 23, 1857, reported that many of the surviving passengers of the Central America stated there was seldom so large an amount of money owned by passengers as those aboard the Central America, numbers of whom reckoned their gold by thousands. The New York Journal of Commerce, in an article of September 23, 1857, said that the exact number of saved and lost would probably never be known, but that it was generally agreed that when she left Havana, she had on board nearly 600 and that the number saved varied between 166 and 187.

Passenger Jane Badger, who was one of the rescued, said her husband was carrying $17,500.00 with him in gold coins in a carpet bag until just before the ship sank. Passenger Caldwell saved 20 pounds of gold dust carried in a belt around his waist. One passenger reported he had $2,000.00 in gold in a belt. There were other accounts of passengers who had been carrying gold with them aboard the Central America.

In a report to the Secretary of the Navy, Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury, USN, under date of October 19, 1857, said that there was on board 575 persons and about two million in gold. He further reported that the information concerning the sinking had been compiled from newspaper reporters who had obtained much information from the survivors.


During the last decade, substantial efforts were made to locate the wreck of the Central America. Such efforts were expensive and time consuming. Scientific and historical research required many hours. Plaintiff in this case, as well as the insurance claimants, located numerous newspaper articles published concerning the sinking of the Central America and the loss of life. The services of experts in many fields have been enlisted. Special equipment was and is required for any such type of undertaking. Patience, skill, long hours of hard work, and some degree of luck, a willingness to risk and a deep pocket are and were necessary for such an undertaking. Plaintiff has expended in excess of ten million dollars in the project. While plaintiff is positive it has located the Central America, it is still engaged in its efforts to bring to the surface the artifacts and portions of the cargo. One will well understand that only portions of the cargo will be found.


Utilizing numerous written accounts, oceanographic, meteorological and other data, modern search theory mathematics, advanced technology and equipment, along with the services of numerous experts, the Columbus-America Discovery Group undertook the search for the wrecked Central America. A specially equipped ship was obtained for the undertaking. Among the equipment was a side-scan sonar, satellite navigation, tele-operated deep-sea equipment (submersible with stereo camera and robotic arms) and computer modeling software, all of which helped to make the discovery possible.

The Central America is said to have settled upright. Since 1857, the Central America has been attacked by the forces of the deep sea. The iron works of her two coal-fired engines, boilers and other fixtures have partially disintegrated under the corrosive action of the salt water and her wooden hull has collapsed.

Thomas G. Thompson, a research scientist in the area of ocean science, headed the undertaking. He pointed out that in preparation for the undertaking, examination was made of hundreds of newspaper articles, statements by numbers of the some 160 survivors, and other information. Thompson said he spent some 13 years researching the historical and technical aspects of the shipwreck of the Central America. Correlation of the data of the survivors—eye witnesses—dealing with conflicts in the accounts and separating the facts from speculation was exceedingly difficult and time consuming. Commencing the search necessitated the development of probability search maps. This required a determination of the probable location of the sinking. Consideration had to be given to the accuracy of the navigational information available as to the probable location of the ship at the time of its sinking, to the quality of the information furnished, to the normal prevailing currents, to what a hurricane does to the normal currents, to the movement of the ship as it begins to fill with water, to how the ship acts as it sinks, to the manner in which it sinks, and to how the information of action of the weather of that day fit into the advanced knowledge and skills of today. Models were created to try to determine drifting patterns and windblown currents and to try to determine how fast and how far a ship would drift under such conditions. Experts making use of these types of information prepared a probability map of where to search for the wrecked vessel. Too, study had to be made of what might be revealed by the sonar. Very little work like this had been done before. In the search, plaintiff found hundreds of what the experts called anomalies on the sea floor which had to be interpreted. They developed a computer process to assist them in undertaking the analysis of these anomalies. Upon analyses, a determination was then made of the most likely targets for the Central America. Many things affected what type of object appeared on the sonar. The sonar ability was much ahead of the interpretative skills. After one develops his or her best guess as to which image is the target he is looking for, it is then necessary to make a number of passes over the object, use video cameras, and to study the image and data in order to undertake to reach a better understanding. There is no set pattern to follow. One must determine what would be expected to remain of a ship which had been in that depth of water some 132 years. It is a new field...

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18 cases
  • Columbus-America Discovery Group v. Atlantic Mut. Ins. Co.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit
    • November 12, 1992
    ...intervenors any time for discovery. After a ten-day trial, the lower Court awarded Columbus-America the golden treasure in its entirety, 742 F.Supp. 1327. It found that the underwriters had previously abandoned their ownership interests in the gold by deliberately destroying certain documen......
  • Deep Sea Research, Inc. v. Brother Jonathan
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of California
    • April 5, 1995
    ...upon to decide the issues of abandonment and competing claims of ownership in the era of insurance: Columbus-America Discovery Group v. Atlantic Mut. Ins. Co., 742 F.Supp. 1327 (E.D.Va.1990), rev'd, 974 F.2d 450 (4th Cir.1992), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 113 S.Ct. 1625, 123 L.Ed.2d 183 (19......
  • Rehm v. Ford Motor Co., Nos. 2009–CA–001868–MR, 2009–CA–001974–MR.
    • United States
    • Kentucky Court of Appeals
    • May 16, 2012
    ...Of the several cases that discuss such an exception, only two will be discussed: Columbus–America Discovery Group, Inc. v. Unidentified, Wrecked and Abandoned Sailing Vessel, 742 F.Supp. 1327 (E.D.Va.1990), and Hicks v. Charles Pfizer & Co., Inc., 466 F.Supp.2d 799 (E.D.Texas 2005). True, t......
  • People ex rel. Illinois Historic Preservation Agency v. Zych
    • United States
    • United States Appellate Court of Illinois
    • October 31, 1997
    ... ... Zych v. Wrecked Vessel Believed To Be the "Lady Elgin", 960 F.2d 665, 666-67 (7th ... were 393 passengers, including members of a militia group called the Union Guards from an Irish, Democratic ward in ... the wreck of the Lady Elgin (1860) and the discovery of the wreckage (1989) compel a conclusion that Aetna ... Fairport, 105 F.3d at 1085, citing Columbus-America Discovery Group v. Atlantic Mutual Insurance Co., 974 F.2d ... [227 Ill.Dec. 230] Wrecked and Abandoned Sailing Vessel, 742 F.Supp. 1327, 1344-46 (E.D.Va. 1990), rev'd on ... ...
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3 books & journal articles
  • The Law of Salvage and the Law of Finds
    • United States
    • Alabama State Bar Alabama Lawyer No. 75-4, July 2014
    • Invalid date
    ...F.2d 330, 1978 A.M.C 1404 (5th Cir.1978); Columbus-America Discovery Group, Inc. v. Unidentified Wrecked and Abandoned Sailing Vessel, 742 F. Supp. 1327, 1990 A.M.C 2409 (E.D. Va. 1990), rev'd on other grounds, 974 F.2d 450, 1992 A.M.C 2705 (4th Cir.1992) (court upheld in rem jurisdiction o......
    • United States
    • William and Mary Law Review Vol. 64 No. 6, May 2023
    • May 1, 2023
    ...supra note 1, at 62. (11.) See generally Columbus-Am. Discovery Grp., Inc. v. Unidentified, Wrecked & Abandoned Sailing Vessel, 742 F. Supp. 1327 (E.D. Va. 1990), rev'd sub nom. Columbus-Am. Discovery Grp. v. Atl. Mut. Ins. Co., 974 F.2d 450 (4th Cir. (12.) The History of the S.S. Centr......
  • Application of salvage law and the law of finds to sunken shipwreck discoveries.
    • United States
    • Defense Counsel Journal Vol. 67 No. 1, January 2000
    • January 1, 2000
    ...Insurance, 17 TUL. MAR. L.J. 353, 354 (1993). (29.) 1993 WL 580900, at 32 (E.D. Va. Nov. 18, 1993) (not reported in F.Supp.). See also 742 F.Supp. 1327 (E.D. Va. (30.) 1998 WL 965905 (D. Alaska 1998), also sub nom. Yukon Recovery LLC v. Certain Abandoned Property. (31.) See Timothy T. Steve......

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