In 1857, the SS Central America, also known as the “ship of gold”, sank off the coast of the US state of South Carolina, along with some new-found riches from the California Gold Rush.
It was a hurricane that sealed the fate for 425 people returning to the US east coast.
They went down with an estimated 21 tonnes of gold coins and nuggets from prospectors who had struck it rich on the west coast, but some passengers were also carrying something of more personal value – photographs.
Salvaged from the ship’s wreckage in 2014 were daguerreotypes, the first successful commercial form of photography – a one-off picture held on a metal plate – and ambrotypes, a type of glass plate photography.
Shipwrecks have never been of particular interest to me. My first encounter with the theme was while vacationing in Key West, Florida about 45 years ago. The vast coral reefs surrounding Key West make it vulnerable to shipwreck. I reckon my disinterest in the subject arises from my distaste for submersion in water using breathing apparatus of any nature. Even snorkelling on the surface frightens me. Though I imagine prospecting for shipwrecks in Key West is at least something potentially within sight (because the water levels are so comparatively low even miles from the coast) the more common detail is that the wrecks are as much as a mile beneath the surface. Being that far below air in any submersible is to my mind unthinkable.
During the golden age of sail, over 100 ships per day passed by Key West. The waters they were sailing were well known as some of the most treacherous in the world. On average, at least one ship per week would wreck somewhere along the Florida Reef.
The Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail is a water-based line of notable wreck sites that stretches from Key Largo to Key West. Established by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the trail was created to encourage an appreciation and understanding of the Keys’ maritime heritage.
In recent decades, centuries-old wrecks have been joined by ships that were intentionally sunk to create artificial reefs in the sanctuary’s federally protected waters.
Resting in depths from 14 to 120 feet, the wrecks on the shipwreck trail reflect a diversity of origins and locations. There are vessels of Spanish explorers dating to the early 1700s, as well as modern cargo and military ships.
What does however interest me about shipwrecks – particularly the first mentioned wreck of the SS Central America off the coast of South Carolina – is its contents of gold and photography.
“Salvaged from the ship’s wreckage in 2014 were daguerreotype and ambrotypes.“
Invented by Louis Daguerre and introduced worldwide in 1839, the daguerreotype was almost completely superseded by 1860 with new, less expensive processes, such as
Ambrotype yield more readily viewable images.
There was a revival of daguerreotype in the late 20th century by a small number of photographers interested in making artistic use of early photographic processes.
To make the image, a daguerreotypist polished a sheet of Silver-Plated Copper to a mirror finish; treated it with fumes that made its surface light sensitive; exposed it in a camera for as long as was judged to be necessary, which could be as little as a few seconds for brightly sunlit subjects or much longer with less intense lighting; made the resulting latent image on it visible by fuming it with Mercury vapor; removed its sensitivity to light by liquid chemical treatment; rinsed and dried it; and then sealed the easily marred result behind glass in a protective enclosure.
Keep in mind that the passengers on the SS Central America were likely traveling with their entire wordly possessions. Though passage by the newly invented steam ship might take as little as 21 days from California to New York, the voyage was fraught with the overpowering threat of the Atlantic Ocean. If on the other hand one preferred the security of overland travel, the trip could take between 4 – 5 months.
In light of the recent assault upon Ukraine the imperative of valuable possessions has sadly resurfaced. Understandably the topic is frequently aligned with urgency and limitation. My own personal experience with the subject was when a fire alarm sounded in an apartment building where I resided. As instructed by the Fire Code the residents trudged out of the building and awaited the arrival of the fire trucks. We could see from the outset that it was probably a false alarm – which it was – but we nonetheless stood by until the firemen completed their investigation. Meanwhile we naturally chatted among ourselves (it was a small apartment building of 30 units only). Comically what developed from the conversation was what people took the time to bring with them aside from a dressing gown (the alarm was after midnight).
Having been a nomad for the first 26 years of my life as I interspersed my accommodations by moving from one year of prep school and university and graduate school and bar admission to another, I quickly learned to identify what if anything was most important to me. Those absorptions have continued to this day. The variety of choice is beyond bounds. Nor is there likely any particular threads that are predictable.
One’s prized possessions often invoke reminiscences or mere artistic pleasure. Sometimes they afford the only link one has with the past. The treasure trove of shipwrecks is commonly considered valuable historically. Gold qualifies as rudimentary commercial value.
Reviewing what one would take if commanded to limit the choice invites a philosophic enquiry as well. I am not convinced it heightens the value of life; nor that it descends to any other wistful association. It may promote strictly economic advantage. Or, for the doubtful sort, it may strengthen the disparaging view of the material world.
Looking back on a lifetime of exposure to notable material things – many of which in the interest of downsizing I have abandoned – I admit there are things I like, things about which I am selective. It is inescapable that the content of the treasure chest is diminishing. Some things just stay in a drawer and have lost their enlivening and requisite utilitarian value. Oddly the one thing – and I am not certain it qualifies as a thing – that I forever adore is music. If asked to stack a limited venue with my choice of things, I would most certainly include music. And probably my favourite book by my favourite author. What else…