World’s oldest cigars, found in an 1857 shipwreck, on display in Tampa

TAMPA — While strolling through Havana in 1857, John Dement did what visitors to Cuba’s capital city still do today — purchased cigars to bring back home.

He made it home, but not with the cigars.

The ship that Dement was on sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, along with more than 30,000 pounds of gold. Nearly 150 years later, treasure hunters ran underwater expeditions to the vessel that became known as the Ship of Gold.

Recovering gold was the primary mission, but the artifacts, including the cigars, were also considered treasure and sold over the years.

The cigars were auctioned in Las Vegas and online in March. They are now in Tampa.

Ybor City’s J.C. Newman Cigar Co. purchased 18 of the 32 recovered cigars for their factory museum, which tells the history of stogies through artifacts like a wooden salesman carrying case from the early 1900s, a company financial statement from 1912 and an early 20th century humidor humidifier made with a mason jar and light bulb.

Overall, the company spent $6,000 at the auction, including two pieces of chewing tobacco from the shipwreck.

“They are the oldest cigars in the world,” said Drew Newman, general counsel for his family’s company, Tampa’s last operational cigar factory. “They were rolled before the Civil War, before Tampa was a city. Their story is just amazing.”

That story begins in San Francisco, where currency from the Gold Rush was shipped to Panama and then loaded onto the SS Central America, a four-story wooden sidewheel steamer that also took mail and more than 500 passengers to New York.

“The SS Central America was part of the Panama route, which was the principal lifeblood of the country during the 1850s,” said Bob Evans, the chief scientist and historian for the underwater recovery missions. “The wealth of California flowed outward to the rest of the world by means of a steamship line.”

Needing more coal for fuel, the ship stopped in Havana, during which time Dement, a merchant, miner and military veteran from Oregon, bought the cigars.

“He might have smoked a few that evening,” Evans said. “And then he tossed them on top of his clothes in his trunk.”

On Sept. 12, 1857, while caught in a hurricane around 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, the SS Central America sank more than 7,000 feet below the surface.

“John Dement wasn’t the only one who bought cigars in Havana,” Newman said. “And when the captain and crew realized that the ship was going down and it couldn’t be saved, they lit cigars. The captain even used a lit cigar to light the signal flares.”

The crew was among the more than 400 who died.

Dement and others survived on lifeboats and by clinging to debris until rescue ships arrived.

His trunk was thrown “clear of the wreckage,” Evans said, never opened and remained on the ocean floor for more than a century.

Then, in 1988, treasure hunter Tommy Thompson began leading expeditions to recover the gold, valued at as much as $150 million by then, and historic artifacts. Dement’s trunk was recovered in 1991.

The trunk was taken to Ohio State University, where it was refrigerated for a few weeks until opened.

“One of the first things we noticed was quite a number of cylindrical dark-gray organic artifacts lying somewhat randomly on top of the blackened mass beneath,” Evans said. “We quickly surmised that they were cigars, and this made perfect sense. Havana was the ship’s last port of call ... It was a moment preserved in time.”

The trunk’s items were rinsed in distilled water and then freeze-dried for several months.

“The cigars emerged from the deep-freeze in essentially the same condition as they are in today,” Evans said.

Despite being submerged in water for so long, the cigars still have their shape, Newman said. “They are all different. Back then, they didn’t have molds. They were completely shaped by human hands, so they are different lengths, different diameters. They tell the story of how cigars were made back then.”

When the opportunity arose, Newman wanted them for his family’s museum.

“No one is aware of any cigars older than these,” Newman said. “They are part of history.”

If you go

The J.C. Newman Cigar Co. factory museum is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays and is free. A guided factory tour is also available. It costs $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, students and veterans. 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. weekdays. 2701 N Sixteenth St., Tampa.