National Politics

Gold bars and coins worth millions from a ship wreck found at NRA meeting in Dallas

Millions in recovered gold treasure on display at NRA Annual Meeting

Gold bars and coins from the SS Central America that sank off of the North Carolina coast in 1857 are on display and for sale at the Universal Coin booth at the 147th annual NRA Annual Meeting in Dallas.
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Gold bars and coins from the SS Central America that sank off of the North Carolina coast in 1857 are on display and for sale at the Universal Coin booth at the 147th annual NRA Annual Meeting in Dallas.

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.

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Gold coins and gold dust off of the SS Central America, that sunk in stormy seas in 1857, are on display in Mike Fuljenz' Universal Coin booth at the NRAAM in Dallas. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is holding its 147th Annual Meetings at the Dallas Convention Center, May 4-6, 2018. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

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.

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Bob Evans with a multi-million dollar stack of gold bars off of the SS Central America that sunk in stormy seas in 1857. The gold is on display in Fuljenz' Universal Coin booth. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is holding its 147th Annual Meetings at the Dallas Convention Center, May 4-6, 2018. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

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.

Many protesters are expected at the 2018 NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits, but on Friday afternoon just five showed up. Four members of PETA and a lone U.S. Military vet stood outside with signs protesting the AR-15 rifle.

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.

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Gold coins and gold dust off of the SS Central America, that sunk in stormy seas in 1857, are on display in Mike Fuljenz' Universal Coin booth at the NRAAM in Dallas. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is holding its 147th Annual Meetings at the Dallas Convention Center, May 4-6, 2018. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

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.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson
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