“Mr. Van Rensselaer (Charles W.) was . . . a member of a family whose name is identified with
every period of the history of our State (New York).” 1 He was a scion of the Van Rensselaer patroons – lords of the manor of Rensselaerwyck, the 700,000 acre land holding in the Hudson River Valley. Hendrick Van Rensselaer, the builder of the family mansion, Crailo, had, among his numerous descendents, a great-great-grandson named Charles Watkins Van Rensselaer. Charles W.
Van Rensselaer was born on January 29, 1823 to Judge John Sanders Van Rensselaer. Charles attended the Albany Academy and, though the son of a judge, the legal profession was not where he envisioned his future. “With a natural taste for the sea, he early adopted it as a profession.” 2 According to his brother Maunsell, “My brother Charles had shown a predilection for a seafaring life and my father had secured a position for him on a Boston ship sailing to China.” 2
In a letter to Maunsell from Albany, dated November 7, 1844, his mother writes, “. . . your
Father took Charles to Boston . . . The vessel, which is called the Yumchi, was to sail to-day or to-
morrow. Charles has behaved with manliness and noble and generous spirit which does him great
credit, and has raised him in the esteem of every one. It was necessary to raise $300. to pay Capt.
Steele to instruct him in Navigation, and give him a footing equal to Captain’s clerk on board the ship. . .Your grandmother advanced the money and he signed a paper that she was to repay herself out of his income. After he left the house, she thought she would make him a present of it. .”2 But after receiving a letter from his grandmother informing him that the money was a gift to him and not a loan, Charles wrote his grandmother back. He thanked her for her generosity but asked that the money be given to his younger siblings.
Charles’ mother wrote to his brother Maunsell that, “Poor Charles sailed last Saturday. He
wrote a most elegant feeling farewell letter to us all, which none of us could read aloud. (Apparently,
they were all too overcome with emotion) He said, although he left home with saddened feelings, he
would not return, as here he was nothing, and he felt that a bright career was opening before him,
where he could be useful to himself and others . . .”. 2
Charles wrote his family that – here (at home) he was nothing. What does he mean? Is it a
twenty-one year old’s post-adolescence angst? Does he feel that he cannot attain all that is expected of a scion of the Van Rensselaer family? Does he feel he has failed himself and his family? No matter what the reasons, it is a most heartrending statement – here I am nothing.
By 1857, Charles Van Rensselaer had been earning his living on the sea for over a dozen years. In September of 1857, he was the First Mate, second in command, and paymaster on the steamship S.S. Central America. “The US Mail Steamship Company owned the S.S Central America, which was a three masted side-wheeled steamship that carried passengers, mail and gold shipments from Panama to New York. The S.S. Central America had successfully completed 43 voyages along the third leg of the sea route from San Francisco to New York during the California Gold Rush of the 19th Century.” 3
“Before construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and the Panama Canal, one of the few options for the efficient transportation of goods from the west to the east coast of the United States involved the use of two sea routes: the Pacific route (usually shipping out of San Francisco) and the Atlantic route (usually shipping out of New York). Both of these routes used to terminate in Panama, where ground transportation across the narrow Isthmus of Panama made commerce between the two routes simple and efficient.” 4
On Sept. 3, 1857, the Central America left Panama, headed for New York City, carrying
approximately 476 passengers and 102 crew. The cargo contained a large amount of gold – estimated
at 20 tons. The gold came in various forms – gold dust, gold coins, gold ingots. Earlier in 1857, the “Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Co. - a major banking institution in New York - collapsed, with rumours of embezzlement rife. The ensuing panic led to many customers trying to withdraw their money from other banks. For that reason, a particularly large cargo of gold was dispatched from the San Francisco Mint to shore up the eastern banks.”5 It has been estimated that the gold on board the Central America was worth approximately $2 million in 1857 or $54 million today – hence, the Central America is known as “The Ship of Gold”.
As the Central America made its way from Panama to New York City, it encountered a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. By the second day of the hurricane, Sept. 10 1857, the Central America had to deal with increasingly serious problems – first among those problems was that the boiler, which was necessary to turn the side-wheel, started going out as ocean water entered it. Capt. William Lewis Herndon organized the crew and male passengers into bailing brigades. It was a losing battle – as fast as they bailed, more water entered the ship. The winds grew fiercer – the waves grew higher. After the boiler went out for good, the Captain tried to set the sails into the wind to prevent the ship from capsizing but the hurricane winds cut the sails to shreds. All the while, the men bailed to the point of utter exhaustion. The Captain had the flag turned upside and had rocket flares shot off to signal distress to passing ships. After a long and gallant fight, the inevitable could not be denied – they would have to pray for passing ships to come and rescue them.
In all such horrific situations, there are stories of bravery, cowardice, selfishness, unbelievable acts of kindness. Some gave up their life-jackets to save others, some chose to stay on the ship rather than leave their fortunes of gold, some forced their way onto lifeboats – the spectrum of human emotion and behavior.
And where, in all this chaos ,was Charles W. Van Rensselaer, First Officer of the ship? By all reports, he was helping the women and children into lifeboats. “To the courage of Charles W. Van Rensselaer, there are fifty-seven living witnesses – tender women and their little children. He supervised their embarkation and then took his station by the side of his commander, and awaited in
dignity the sinking of his ship.” 6
An article in the New York Times, dated Oct. 2, 1857, states “that everything was done by Mr.Van Rensselaer that seamanship could devise. He aided in helping the women and children into the boats, and then when the fatal hour came he and Capt. Herndon went to their state-rooms, put on
their uniforms, and took their places side by side on the paddles box, the officers’ post. Mr. Van
Rensselaer then lighted a cigar and was calmly smoking it when the steamer reeled down beneath
them into the depths below . . . they died as they should, nobly.”
“Nobly” – the mot juste. What an awe-inspiring scene – attired in their dress uniforms, calmly smoking cigars, as their ship dives into the cold, black, storm-tossed sea – the tragic romance of it all. But could there by another story of Charles Van Rensselaer’s demise?
According to Ansel Ives Easton, a wealthy Californian, who was on his honeymoon aboard the Central America, the death of First Officer Van Rensselaer was a bit different. “Easton, carried down with his life-preserver, soon arose to the surface, where he was seized by Van Rensselaer. The first mate had no life preserver, and ‘it was soon apparent that one would not sustain both’. Then came a death grapple between the two. The mate tried to retain his grasp upon Easton’s coat, while the latter knew his life depended upon getting free. They struggled briefly, Easton finding himself unable to shake off the hold of the first mate. By a sudden movement, he ‘slipped his arms from the sleeves and left the garment in his hands. In an instant, the first officer sank to rise no more’.” 7
Perhaps this version of Van Rensselaer’s death sounds more realistic –but much more sad and terrifying. Why didn’t Van Rensselaer have a life-preserver? Had he given his to someone else? Van Rensselaer didn’t die resigned to his fate – he was a young man who fought with all his strength to stay alive.
“At the end of this fierce and ultimately unsuccessful battle, the Central America sank by the stern in about 8,000 feet of water, taking 425 people to the bottom with her. It was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 19th century.” 8
Charles W. Van Rensselaer was described by John Tice, 1st assistant engineer on the Central America as, “ . . . one of the bravest and most generous fellows that ever lived.”9 William L. Maury, a former officer on the Central America, stated that Van Rensselaer was “. . . my ever faithful shipmate . . . not a dismayed countenance nor a faint heart.” 10
So the young man from Albany, who went to sea because he felt he was “nothing”, left a legacy of dedication to duty, selflessness and courage.
There is a postscript to this story. In the early 1980’s, a marine engineer from Ohio, Tommy Thompson, began his search for the S.S. Central America. After painstaking research, with the help of geologist Bob Evans, “They took (their information) to Dr. Lawrence D. Stone, one of the world’s leading experts on search theory, a method using probability and statistical analysis to find objects, particularly in the ocean. . . Utimately, he (Dr. Stone) came up with a 1400-square-mile search area” 11
In order to finance the expedition to find the S.S. Central America, Thompson founded a group of investors, The Columbus-America Discovery Group, which invested millions of dollars to find “ the Ship of Gold.”
A great deal of careful planning was done in order to make this expedition successful.
Thompson would use “Nemo, an undersea robot specially designed for historic shipwreck excavation
using archeological techniques” 11
In September 1988, the expedition raised the bell of the wreckage they were searching to the surface, positively identifying it as the S.S. Central America. According to Thompson, the underwater expedition site, as viewed by the robot, was “ a garden of gold . . There were rivers of gold coins,carpets of gold.” 12
Thompson and his crew began bringing millions of dollars worth of gold to the surface.
The salvaging of the treasure continued between 1988 and 1991, when Thompson’s legal problems
began to increase.
In 2005, the expedition’s investors began legal action against Thompson, claiming that they had not seen any return on their investment. At the same time, Thompson was selling the gold coins and bars of gold that had been recovered from the ship. “ . . . by 2000 he had sold over 500 gold bars and thousands of coins . . . for $50 million.” 13
By 2006, Thompson’s crew was suing him because they had not received their share of the
bounty. At that point, Thompson went into seclusion. “ He grew increasingly reclusive, and his behavior turned bizarre”. 14 He ignored court summons that were issued to him. In 2012, Thompson seemingly disappeared. The hunter and finder of a massive treasure was a fugitive from a federal arrest warrant.
On January 27, 2015, Tommy Thompson was arrested at the Hilton Boca Raton, in Boca Raton, Florida, along with his girlfriend and fellow fugitive, Alison Antekeier. The fugitives had been hiding in plain view. According to Peter Tobin, US Marshal, “ Thompson was one of the most intelligent fugitives ever sought by the US Marshals.” 15 Thompson and Antekeier are presently awaiting trial.
And so, the saga of the S.S. Central America continues. The lust for gold and greed, as displayed in the 19th Century, has its analog in the 20th and 21st Centuries. But the story of the S.S. Central America has other components that display the more redeeming and noble aspects of human nature. For every Tommy Thompson, there is a Charles W. Van Rensselaer.
1. Annals of the Van Rensselaers in the United States by the Rev. Maunsell Van Rensselaer,DD,LLD
Charles Van Benthuysen and Sons, Albany, NY p. 229
2. Ibid., pp 142-143
3. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, Oct. 31, 1857
4. www.Wikipedia.org/ Charles W. Van Rensselaer
5. The Telegraph, January 29, 2015
6. Albany Evening Journal, September 22, 1857
7. San Francisco Bulletin, October 23, 1857
8. w.w.w.Seamunger.com, posted September 12, 2013
9. The Final Voyage of the Central America, 1857, by Normand E. Klare, Clark Co. Spokane,WA 1992 p.166
10. New York Times, November 9, 1857
12. Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1990
14. USA Today, September 13, 2014
Coin World, January 28, 2015