Richard Griswold del Castillo, Book Review Editor
The Final Voyage of the Central America, 1857.
By Normand E. Klare. Spokane: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1992. Map. Illustrations. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. 278 pages. $32.95.
Reviewed by Abraham Hoffman, Book Editor of The Californian magazine.
On September 12, 1857, 485 out of 596 people-the passengers and crew of the Central America, a steamship sailing from Panama to New York-died in the worst passenger ship disaster of the 19th century. The Central America had the misfortune of running into one of the worst hurricanes to strike the Atlantic Ocean within anyone’s memory. Other ships were also damaged or sunk, but none bore the tragedy of so many dead.
The Central America is also memorable for its recent appearance in the news. In 1987 the location of the sunken vessel was found, and in recent years some of its treasure has been recovered. An estimated $1.6 million in gold may have been on the ship, in addition to the gold, jewels, and other valuables left behind by the passengers as the ship went down. Thus the Central America may prove to be one of the most remarkable treasure troves found in modern times. Many of the passengers were wealthy veterans of the California gold fields. The value of the treasure may reach as much as a billion dollars in modern currency.
Although there have been articles published discussing the fate of the Central America, none comes close to the exhaustive research done by Normand Klare in writing this book. His interest in the subject was personal as well as professional; one of the survivors of the tragedy, nine-year-old Augustine Pahud, was the author’s grandmother. She lived to age 93, dying in 1941. Her reminiscences inspired Klare to take up the challenge of writing the definitive history of the fate of the Central America.
Klare searched through a tremendous number of primary sources, many of them local and obscure, to make the lives of the passengers and crew of the ship as vivid as possible. The sinking of the Central America was a story of tragedy, heroism, sacrifice, and some cowardice. The newspapers of the time reported the facts as they were learned, resulting in the perpetuating of initial errors masking as truth. Sifting through the testimony of the survivors, Klare demonstrates that the actions of crew and passengers were for the most part selfless and heroic. With one exception, all of the women and children were successfully transported to another ship in spite of incredible difficulties. Klare provides a fascinating appendix in which he traces the later lives of the survivors in as much detail as possible. His description of the efforts of everyone to keep the ship afloat is so gripping that the book literally becomes a “page-turner.” You don’t want to put the book down until you know what happens next. That’s the best kind of history writing one can do, and a tribute to the author’s dedication to his subject.