Millions in recovered gold treasure on display at NRA Annual Meeting
The bars are shiny, yet stained from more than 130 years at the bottom of the sea.
In all, they weigh more than 400 pounds — and they're likely worth something in the neighborhood of $7 million to $14 million.
This nearly forgotten piece of American history — the bounty from an 1857 ship wreck that caused a nationwide economic panic — was a hidden treasure of sorts last week at the NRA annual meeting in Dallas.
"Money is history in your hands," said Mike Fuljenz, a Beaumont resident and president of Universal Coin who brought the Ship of Gold exhibit to the National Rifle Association's biggest annual event.
"When I look at these bars and coins, I wonder, who handled these? It's years and years of history," he said.
More than 80,000 people attended the annual NRA meeting at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. As expected, much of the ballyhoo in the enormous exhibit hall was about assault rifles, revolvers and baseball caps featuring the emblems of numerous gun, knife and sporting goods manufacturers.
But tucked in the back of the exhibit hall was the Ship of Gold exhibit, where visitors gladly posed for photos with the bars, coins and gold dust on display behind glass.
The story of the ship wreck is a nearly forgotten tale. Fuljenz says his best guess is that the nation's attention turned to the Civil War just four years after the ocean disaster.
But Fuljenz is glad to share what he knows about the Ship of Gold, also known as the S.S. Central America, to anyone who will listen.
Back in the days before telegraphs, information and money traveled mostly by ship. On a routine, 25-day trip from San Francisco to New York (and across the Isthmus of Panama, before the Panama Canal was built), the S.S. Central America steam ship carrying the gold as well as tons of mail and hundreds of passengers, sank off the North Carolina shore during a hurricane.
The wreck killed 425 people, and another 153 people survived. The survivors provided witness accounts of the incident and tried to direct hunters to the ship's last known location, but searchers could not find it for more than 130 years.
But in 1988, the ship wreck was finally found. Some of the gold was brought back to land at that time, and more of the gold was recovered in 2014.
Bob Evans, chief scientist aboard one of the missions to retrieve the gold, also was at the NRA meeting in Dallas. He said that even when searchers believed they had located the ship through mathematics, it took weeks to confirm it.
Evans said he knew in his heart that the bounty had been found when a robot sent 7,000 feet under the sea returned to the surface with evidence on its metal parts..
"We found gold dust sediment lodged in the runners of the robot," he said.