Addie and Ansel Easton were privileged passengers aboard the Central America, paying $300 a day for their stateroom. They were regularly invited to the captain’s table, and they found the 44-year-old Captain William Lewis Herndon a magnificent host. He fascinated all with vivid descriptions of his 11-month expedition of the 4000-mile-long Amazon River in South America.
It seemed inevitable that the conversation would ultimately turn to the frightening thought of shipwreck. That was on every passenger’s mind.
There had been a shipwreck recently and this was the season of heavy storms. Captain Herndon confirmed that the captain of that particular ill-fated vessel had survived.
But he shocked listeners with a dose of brutal honesty: “Well,” Captain Herndon, the traditionalist said, “I’ll never survive my ship. If she goes down, I go under her keel. But let us talk of something more cheerful.”
One wonders how much more the passengers would have worried if they had known that some believed the Central America was “unseaworthy”–a rotten old hulk as unstable as a “loaf of gingerbread.”
And while the passengers enjoyed the voyage and good weather, there were disturbing financial rumblings in New York City. The failure of a life insurance company branch had set the scene for the financial Panic of 1857, one of the most severe economic crises in U.S. history.
(next, Part 4)