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The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 3, January 21, 2007, Article 17

BOB EVANS ON THE SINKING OF THE S.S. CENTRAL AMERICA

Regarding the recent speculation about the reasons for the sinking
of the S.S. Central America, Bob Evans writes:

"I was the Chief Scientist and Historian of the S.S. Central America
Project, founded and led by Tommy Thompson. In that capacity I have
studied every aspect of the ship and its fascinating history for
twenty-three years. I’m traveling on business at the moment, and I
don’t have my references with me, but I want to respond before this
thread gets too far off track.

"Leon Worden (E-Sylum Jan. 7) raises some interesting issues, but,
as he himself admits, his knowledge about the operating and ballasting
of a mid-nineteenth century steamship is meager. So, let me fill in
some details and some perspective.

"The S.S. Central America was a wooden-hulled side-wheeler that measured
278 feet “between the perpendiculars,” that is between the deadwood at
the bow and the sternpost. As designed and built its displacement
(weight) was somewhere around 3000 tons. It now rests about a mile
and a half deep on the Atlantic seafloor, roughly 170 miles off the
Carolina coast. One can think of its current condition as that of a
four-story, mostly collapsed building about the length of a football
field.  In years of exploring the site and studying the images we
found no “smoking gun” indicating the physical reason for the sinking,
not that we expected to amidst the chaos of the shipwreck.

"The vessel was built at the William Webb Shipyard on the East River
in New York. This steamship, and others like it, was built hull first.
Think of the initial construction as a giant oaken canoe. Then it was
floated a short distance down the river to the foundry at the Morgan
Iron Works where the enormous engines were installed. The engines,
boilers and related equipment weighed 750 tons. This sequence allowed
placement of the ironworks so the hull could be balanced on an even
keel. Then the ship was floated back to the Webb Shipyard where the
interior decks, cabins and other elements were finished.

"Ocean-going steamships were a new technology in the mid-nineteenth
century. The fuel for such steamships was coal, and coal was also the
primary ballast during a voyage. They burned tremendous amounts of
fuel: around 70 tons each day. Typically, a steamship had to reach a
coaling station every couple weeks or less.

"In the case of the Panama Route, coal was available at the two terminals
in New York and Aspinwall (Colon,) Panama, as well as at an intermediate
coaling station in Havana, with an alternate station in Jamaica in case
cholera was rampant in Havana, as it sometimes was. It was important to
keep proper supplies of coal in the ships’ bunkers in order to maintain
both fuel supply and ballast. Too little and the paddlewheels would not
push enough water. Too much and the wheels would bog down, pushing too
much water up and down. (It is no wonder that side-wheel propulsion
systems were replaced by screw propellers after only a couple decades.)

"There are two main points to all this information. First, keeping the
ship on an even keel was tremendously important, and it was standard
operating procedure to selectively burn coal from the storage bunkers,
fore and aft, starboard and port, in order to maintain that balance.
Second, this was a really big ship for the age of wooden-hulled vessels;
about as big as could be made for any practical purpose. 3000 tons is a
big wooden boat!

"There are various figures bandied about for the amount of gold that
was aboard the S.S. Central America: three tons, six tons, fifteen
tons, etc. None of these amounts, or even a hundred tons for that
matter, would have made much difference to the operation of the
steamship.  The weight of gold aboard was insignificant compared to
the weight of the vessel and its fuel/ballast. Unscrupulous acts of
gold shifting and manipulation by bankers and others would have little
or no effect. The engineers and crew selecting coal from the bunkers
would have adjusted the balance.

"Author Gary Kinder uses the testimony of an individual or individuals,
recalling events after the sinking and for their own reasons, to create
a romantic picture of a steamship on the high seas, the bow riding high
over the waves. He then engages in his own speculation about how that
later impacted the flooding of the hull. His book is hardly a forensic
study, although it makes an excellent narrative.

"The loss of the Central America is probably due to the blind worship
of technology (sound familiar?), not by any means confined to that age.
When ocean-going steamships were “perfected” in the 1840s, it was
possible to schedule travel at sea for the first time in human history.
This apparent technological miracle was attended by a certain vanity.
“Man now has conquered the elements!” So, a huge ship built of wooden
planks with a heavy load of iron near the center steamed into the midst
of a Category 2 hurricane. The planks started to work loose in heavy
seas, and leaks developed. The coal got wet, reducing steam pressure,
and ultimately the engines stopped and the boilers went cold. Without
steam pressure there were no pumps either, so men set to work manually
bailing. This went on for thirty exhausting hours before the ship
sank.

"So much for conquering the elements.

"Questions about the SS Central America can be directed to me at
evans1857@juno.com. Please include “SSCA” in the subject line,
since I get a fair amount of spam."

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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