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About $150 million worth of gold recovered from a 19th century shipwreck came ashore and was loaded into armored trucks Thursday, under the eyes of armed guards and happy investors in the salvage project.

Several hundred people watched while crewmen of the recovery ship Arctic Discoverer unloaded crates bearing more than a ton of gold coins and bars found in the wreckage of the SS Central America.The sidewheel steamer sank about 200 miles off South Carolina during a hurricane on Sept. 12, 1857. It was carrying California gold to New York when it went down, killing 425 of the 578 people aboard.

The Columbus America Discovery Group, which has more than 120 investors, located the wreck three years ago and found the main gold storage area this summer.

"It is a magnificent national treasure, to be cherished, to be shared," Bob Evans, a project director, said during a welcoming ceremony where a sampling of the shiny gold coins and bars sat on a table.

The group expects to recover more gold from the wreck, at a depth of 1 1/2 miles, when the weather improves next summer.

The booty will be shared among the investors if U.S. District Court grants them ownership, said Richard Robol, attorney for the group. The court already has given the group rights to ship artifacts, including a 300-pound bell, recovered before June 30.

Robol said 45 insurance firms have filed claims for the treasure, contending they have ties to the 19th century insurance companies that paid more than $1.2 million in claims after the ship sank.

Not all of the ship's gold has been recovered, and its exact value has yet to be determined. The ship was carrying more than three tons of gold, which would be worth about $450 million at today's prices.

In addition, many passengers were carrying individual fortunes they had made in California, so the ship's total treasure could be worth up to $1 billion, shipwreck experts have said.

Tom Thompson, the project's principal director, said 120 investors have rights to two-thirds of the booty with the rest going to a small group of the project participants, including himself, Evans and Barry Schatz, another project director. They were reluctant to talk about how much money they hope to make from the salvage operation, which has cost about $10 million.

"We hope to be rich," Thompson said simply.

"It was an interesting, fascinating gamble," said Bill Cook, a Columbus, Ohio, businessmen who was one of the original investors. "I'm not feeling smug. I feel lucky."

Investors paid from $5,000 to $50,000 for a share of the project.

Thompson, an ocean engineer, said much of the gold remains hidden at the bottom of the wreck, but salvagers were surprised that so much of the treasure was easily visible at the site.

"The gold is on top of beams and falling off beams," he said.