A stash of gold coins found last week is the latest piece of evidence that a shipwreck 40-plus miles off the North Carolina coast is that of the steamship Pulaski, which took half its wealthy passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic in 1838.
Divers found 14 gold coins and 24 silver coins in a spot “no bigger than a cigar box.” All predate the ship’s sinking and include one British coin that experts say could be worth $100,000. Other gold coins in the collection are valued in the $10,000 to $12,000 range, officials said.
James Sinclair, a marine archaeologist involved in project, says finding gold coins proves the team is in the right spot.
“This evidence supports reports that valuables, including gold and silver, were aboard the Pulaski when she sank,” Sinclair said in a statement.
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The coins were uncovered as part of a joint project by Blue Water Ventures International and Endurance Exploration Group, two publicly traded companies that expect to find a treasure trove of valuables brought aboard by wealthy passengers.
Those involved in the project have one particular passenger in mind: Charles Ridge, a man who survived but reportedly lost $20,000 in the disaster, all of it in gold coins.
Ridge’s fate is legendary. Newspapers from the era report he rescued a wealthy heiress by holding her atop a “floating piece of parlor furniture.” He proposed marriage as they drifted along for four days. She accepted, even though he’d lost everything when the ship exploded and sank.
Keith Webb of Blue Water Ventures said in an interview that the two companies are heavily researching the story of Ridge and the heiress.
“We have yet to find them listed among the survivors, but we’re on a quest to find out if it’s real or not,” said Webb. “I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to say I found a gold coin that belonged to Ridge...But I love the story that in the face of tragedy there was something good that came out it...It’s romantic. It’s exciting.”
Webb predicts they’ll find thousands of coins that could be worth millions. So far, he says they’ve found 51 U.S., Spanish and Mexican coins during a half dozen visits.
The sinking of the Pulaski is listed among the nation’s worst maritime disasters.
Around midnight June 13-14, 1838, the ship’s boilers exploded, and 100 of the roughly 200 people aboard died. The passengers included some of the South’s wealthiest families, who had little time to collect their things before jumping overboard. Newspaper accounts tell of “panicky passengers in their night clothes, seeking refuge on the promenade deck as the bow rose out of the water and ripped apart.”
It was long believed the Pulaski went down about 30 miles off the coast, but the explorers believe they have found the wreckage more than 10 miles farther out to sea.
A report compiled by Webb at the project’s start noted the shipwreck happened in an era when wealthy women would have been traveling with a large quantity of personal jewelry to maintain their public stature. “In many cases, jewelry would already have been antiques; family heirlooms produced by some of the finest jewelers in France, Russia and England and date from the 1600’s or 1700’s,” says the report.
Historians hope the divers will eventually uncover definitive proof of the ship’s identity, possibly the ship’s bell with Pulaski etched in it, or numbers on the boilers that can be traced to a manufacturer. So far, neither has been found.
The wreckage is more than 100 feet down in a spot where temperatures are 58 degrees and visibility is more than 70 feet.
Other artifacts discovered include two turkey trays, a men’s straight razor and a candlestick holder. Endurance Exploration owns the wreck site, having filed an admiralty claim in federal court. That means it has legal right to salvage the spot and owns whatever is recovered.