Lost and Found Gold

Levi Strauss & Co.
August 19, 2010

When you’ve been in business as long as Levi Strauss & Co. (157 years, to be precise) you’re bound to come up against the occasional economic downturn.

In 1857, the company’s profits literally went down with the ship.

It happened in September. Levi Strauss was running his dry goods wholesaling firm at the time (the invention of jeans was sixteen years in the future). He regularly shipped “treasure” (that is, gold) to his brothers in New York City. They used the money to buy more fine clothing, bedding, handkerchiefs, hats and boots made in New York, to ship to Levi back in San Francisco. He then sold the stuff to his retail customers in California’s gold country and throughout the west.

On August 20, Levi watched as $76,441.79 worth of gold was transferred onto the steamship S. S. Sonora, for shipment to New York. (By the way, that’s about $1,800,000.00 in today’s money. Talk about inflation.)

The Sonora steamed from San Francisco to Panama City, where the gold was loaded onto the Panama Railroad and transported to the city of Aspinwall, on the Caribbean side of the isthmus. There, the gold went into the hold of the steamship S.S. Central America. The ship steamed into the blue waters, and on September 7, landed in Havana, Cuba, for a little sightseeing. That accomplished, the ship headed up the east coast for New York.

The weather had turned nasty after leaving Cuba, and by September 12, as the Central America was passing South Carolina, the passengers and crew knew they were in the midst of a hurricane. The captain ordered people to lifeboats, and a nearby ship was able to pick up some of the passengers. However, only 153 people were saved, with about 425 lost.

And that’s not all that didn’t make it.

When the Central America sunk into the sea off Charleston, the boxes of gold belonging to Levi Strauss and many other San Francisco businessmen went straight to the bottom.

Now, because the company lost all of its historical records in the 1906 earthquake and fire, it’s not known how badly this affected Levi’s business. The sinking of the Central America did set off some major national financial turmoil. It even got its own name: The Panic of 1857.

But apparently Levi didn’t panic. Research shows that he continued to receive shipments of dry goods from New York, and sent gold back to New York even after hearing about the disaster in October. And in larger amounts, no less. It’s very likely the gold was insured and Levi received some sort of compensation.

Then, in 1987, the Columbus-America Discovery Group found the Central America and its treasure. After a nine-year court battle, the group was allowed to keep the gold. There is no way to know which ingots, bars or other parts of the hoard belonged to Levi Strauss and his brothers.

But at least the gold showed up. Even if it was 130 years late.