A luxury steamship that went to the bottom of the Atlantic in 1838 with half its affluent passengers may have been found more than 40 miles off the coast of North Carolina.
An underwater exploration venture based out of Florida said it has found enough evidence to convince backers they’ve found the wreck of the Pulaski sitting under 100 feet of water.
That evidence includes Spanish and U.S. silver coins that date up until the time of the wreck, along with wreckage that closely parallels survivors’ stories of a starboard boiler explosion that sank the ship in 45 minutes.
To say the discovery is important is an understatement, historians said.
The disappearance of the Pulaski remains one of the nation’s most dramatic and deadly maritime disasters, partly because half of the people on board died, but also because its passengers included some of the most prominent families in the Southeast. Among those lost was New York congressman William B. Rochester and six members of the Lamar family, then among the richest families in the Southeast.
The ship was bound for Baltimore from Savannah when it exploded around 11 p.m. on June 13, 1838. One hundred of the roughly 200 people on board died, including many who were scalded to death by steam. Newspaper accounts tell dramatic stories of “panicky passengers in their night clothes, seeking refuge on the promenade deck as the bow rose out of the water and ripped apart.”
By one account, the scene at 3 a.m. was of an ocean filled with “the wailing of the hopeless beings who were floating in every direction, upon pieces of the wreck.” Among the survivors was the well-reported case of an heiress and a New Orleans businessman who got engaged as they floated along on a raft.
Writers have called the disaster story “the Titanic of its time.”
“Finding the Pulaski is a big deal,” said Dr. Joseph Schwarzer, director of the North Carolina Maritime Museums. “Saying something was the ‘Titanic of its time’ is an overworked metaphor, since the Titanic was among the greatest maritime disasters in humankind. … But I will say it’s one of the more significant disasters in American maritime history. It was the ‘Titanic of its time’ in terms of the people who were on it. It was a who’s who of the colonial South, and the loss of life was significant. Entire families were lost.”
Schwarzer has been in contact with organizers of the recovery and is keeping an open mind that they may have found the Pulaski. He said proof positive would include finding the ship’s bell (which would have the name etched in it) or some numbers on the copper plating of the boilers, which could be traced to the maker.
Blue Water Ventures International said divers have yet to find either.
However, Keith Webb of Blue Water Ventures is convinced he’s in the right spot and will find the necessary proof historians seek over the next two years. He expects the survey area to expand during that time, from the size of half a football field to a few miles in each direction. Blue Water Ventures is partnering with Endurance Exploration Group on the project.
“We haven’t found a saucer or cup that says ‘Pulaski’ on it. (But) two variables would lead you to believe it’s the Pulaski,” Webb said. “All coins we are finding are from the time up until the wreck, and we’ve found 25 specimens. And then there are the boilers themselves. Survivors say one of the boilers just blew apart and the other split up the side. And we have located those in that state. In my mind, there is no doubt this is the wreck of the Pulaski. A lot of history is going to be coming off this vessel.”
A filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission described the discoveries made so far as “passenger valuables.” The coins have included silver Spanish and American pieces, as well as a Mexican peso the size of a half dollar. Webb said other discoveries include an encrusted men’s stainless steel straight razor, a candlestick holder, and a turkey platter big enough to hold a 25-pound turkey. “With not a single scratch on it,” Webb said.
He does not expect to find human remains on the wreck after 180 years.
The wreckage sits in 58-degree waters and is “dangerously close to the Gulf Stream,” Webb said. Visibility in the area is 70 to 90 feet. However, what divers see does not resemble a ship, Webb said.
“It’s a 30-foot by 60-foot pile of copper, from the boilers to the copper walls that surrounded the boilers. They are lapped onto each other. We’ve got bolts, rivets, brass fittings and lots of 5-inch-thick fire bricks, which would have been on the floor. There’s no wood left and nothing of the structure.”
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. Blue Water Ventures was brought on board because it specializes in recovering historical artifacts. It will get a percentage of the recovery, Webb said.
Representatives from Blue Water Ventures and Endurance Group reached out to the North Carolina Maritime Museum to see if it would take donated items from the wreckage for its historical displays. Schwarzer said he’d love such artifacts – if the wreck is authenticated to be the Pulaski.
Travelers of the era were apt to take large sums of money with them, and folklore has it that some of the passengers lost their entire fortune when the ship went down.
Valuable coins, jewelry and a purser’s safe are among the valuables the divers expect to find. Some of the coins found so far date back to the early 1700s. Webb said the discoveries could help “tell the history of the American coin.”
Schwarzer said he’s also hoping the expeditions will “help fill out the story of the Pulaski.” That could including solving the mystery of why the boilers exploded. The Pulaski was a early steamship, built in a period of experimentation, and explosions were not uncommon.
Competition was so fierce at the time that steamships practically raced to their destinations, hoping to best the arrival times of competitors. It’s entirely possible that forensics done by Blue Water Ventures will reveal cracks in the boiler walls proving the ship had pushed itself to its limits, causing the boilers to explode.
As for the ship’s bell, Webb believes the violent nature of the explosion means it could be anywhere on the bottom. “Only time will tell, as we move from the main copper pile into the debris field,” he says.