Columbus Monthly magazine published a great article on the history of the
SS Central America salvage operations. It's lengthy and well worth a read. Here are a couple of
Finding the Wreck: 1989
The following summer they returned to the sites of some of the most promising matches with Nemo, a
remote-controlled device Thompson had engineered to operate in 10,000 feet of water. Evans coined
the name after the protagonist in Jules Verne’s classic science-fiction novel “Twenty Thousand
Leagues Under the Sea.” Nemo had cameras and stereo video that could transmit 3-D images to the
surface. It could rotate 360 degrees, and it had two robotic arms that would respond to the
commands of a technician operating it from above. While exploring the site almost everyone the
previous summer believed was the Central America, they confirmed they had found an 1850s steamship
with a lot of coal. But they didn’t find any gold.
This didn’t sit well with Evans. The site was in a high-probability zone. It was one of the more
promising sites they had found. If it was the Central America, there should be gold. Something
wasn’t right. So, Evans spent the off season—the winter months of 1987 into 1988—reviewing all the
images the sonar scanner produced the first summer at sea, paying particular attention to the
images that weren’t included in the Hit Parade. What he found was an image of what appeared to be
piles of coal, forming a shape that roughly matched the size of the Central America—better than the
other image did, anyway. Though it had been written off as a geological mass, Evans had a nagging
feeling this might just be the Central America. If he was right, they had wasted an entire summer
and millions of dollars exploring the wrong site. When the group geared up for the next season,
Evans told Thompson and Williamson about what he’d found. It was in a low-probability area but en
route to the original site, so they decided they might as well pass over it.
The crew, fresh from the off season and prepared for another summer at sea, arrived at the site
of the mass that piqued Evans’ curiosity in their newly renovated research vessel, the Arctic
Discover. When they dropped Nemo, nobody expected what happened next. Almost immediately, from the
corner of the screen, an image of a large iron sidewheel began to creep into view. The room
erupted. Shouts of “Whoa!” and “Oh my God!” echoed throughout the control room. Awestruck, Nemo’s
operator John Moore began to proclaim, “You know…” and, in unison, the entire crew finished, “what
that is!” Moments later, Nemo was inches from crashing into a mast extending straight up into the
water. On their first dive of the season, they had hit the target dead center.
Bob Evans Returns: 2014
Bob Evans stands on the Odyssey Explorer with his hands in the
front pockets of his blue jeans, his graying hair tucked beneath a canvas cap and pulled into a
thin pony tail. The eyes behind his glasses are bright and wide. He rocks forward in his sneakers,
talking excitedly of the impending trip to sea. Evans is a geologist and a historian—and he is
Unlike the rest of the Explorer crew, 60-year-old Evans is not embarking on this journey for the
first time. This is a homecoming. He’s been to the Central America, explored the caverns of its
decay, seen artifacts frozen in time, marveled at colonies of sea creatures growing on castles of
gold and held the precious metal when it was hauled to the surface. He’s heading back to the site
to finish what he and a team of other scientists, oceanographers and treasure hunters started 25
years ago but never completed. He’s going back to finish the story.
“I am thrilled to be going back to this shipwreck,” he says. “Absolutely thrilled. This has been
a project that I have worked on and dreamed about and studied in great detail for 30 years. This is
a dream come true.”
When Evans left Charleston in April, the trees were just beginning to bloom. Their leaves were
already changing color and falling off by the time he returned in September. He had worked the
night shift on the Odyssey Explorer—9 p.m. to 9 a.m.—and saw more of the moon than the sun. Still,
his fair skin was red and raw as he recounted his summer at sea during an interview in September.
Ironically, he wasn’t sunburned while he was on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Rather, it
happened the first day he was back on his farm in Muskingum County, mowing the fields, cutting down
a maple tree, tending to the horses and sheep and chickens. Evans is spry for 60—heck, he’s spry
for 50—and he didn’t stay idle for long, despite his arduous summer.
Though work at sea is demanding, returning to the site of the Central America was a delight for
Evans. It was the opportunity to finish what he started—an opportunity he never thought he’d have
“I had given up hope that this would happen,” he says, his voice thick with emotion. “It has
been very fulfilling.”
Finally, after more than 20 years, he was able to see what had become of his experiments. He
holds up a small block of wood—jagged on its sides and nearly hollowed out with cylindrical holes.
This is what remains of the pine 4-by-4 they planted in the sediment in 1990. It was 3 feet tall
then; now, it’s no taller than 6 inches. The round tunnels were carved by shipworms, which are
actually a species of clam, like the ones that consumed the entire ship. Judging by the state of
the experimental piece of wood, it didn’t take them very long.
The shipwreck is not only scientifically significant. It’s culturally significant. It is a time
capsule, a period snapshot. Over the summer, the Odyssey Explorer crew found thousands of artifacts
buried in the sand. A clay pipe, a miniature chess piece. A ladies comb, a spoon. They even found
parts of a music box. Evans, a pianist, plans to use the impressions in the drum to decipher the
tune it once played.
Most telling were the photographs. Portraits of young women, of husbands and wives, of mothers
and their children. Lifeless but preserved. They are the loved ones of passengers aboard the ship’s
final voyage. They are the survivors. They are the victims.
“To see people’s faces staring up at you from the bottom of the sea, it’s startling,” he says.
“Talk about humanizing what it is that you’re working on.”
To read the complete article, see:
Man Overboard: Tommy Thompson, a Ship of Gold and the Columbus Investors Still Looking for
Wayne Homren, Editor
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