In the waning years of the great California Gold Rush, a ship laden around 30,000 pounds of the precious metal on its way to New York was caught in the middle of a vicious hurricane and sunk off the coast of South Carolina with 425 souls aboard.

For 156 years the so-called “Ship of Gold” – along with thousands of coins, bars and nuggets of gold – lay at the bottom of the briny Atlantic, producing dreams of riches and heated legal debates over who could dredge up the sunken treasure that went under he waves in 1857.

While deep-sea treasure hunters discovered the SS Central America in 1988 and were able to haul up some gold coins – along with boasting that $1 billion of treasure lay off the coast of Palmetto state – over a decade of courtroom drama involving upset insurers and  irate investors that have kept the gold a mile and a half below water.

But now, with the legal debacle finally cleared-up, Tampa Bay’s Odyssey Marine Exploration dropped its first robot into the Atlantic last month and returned to shore with five gold bars weighing 66 pounds valued at about $1.2 million as pure metal – and even more as artifacts. Excited by their findings, executives at Odyssey Marine Exploration hope to continue to scour for more gold and continue to explore the shipwreck.

"We want to show that it can be done right," Gregory Stemm, Odyssey's chief executive, said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "It's a great opportunity."

Experts believe that the SS Central America could contain a commercial shipment of gold valued at $93,000 in 1857 prices and gold owned by passengers on the ship valued at between $250,000 and $1.28 million could be locked away.

Along with the gold, Odyssey Marine Exploration's remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV), named Zeus, picked up a bottle, a piece of pottery, a sample of the shipwreck's wooden structure and part of a scientific experiment that had been left at the site during a previous trip 20 years before.

"The skill exhibited and results achieved during the initial reconnaissance dive reinforces our belief that the Odyssey team was the absolute best choice for this project," Craig Mullen, director of operations for the Recovery Limited Partnership, said in a statement, according to Scientific American.

Christened in 1853 as the SS George Law when it was first launched, the SS Central America was 280-feet-long steamship that operated the Atlantic leg of the San Francisco to New York voyages during the California Gold Rush. During its time on the seas, it made 43 trips between Panama and New York.

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