One of the nation's deadliest maritime mysteries was solved this week, when divers found conclusive proof that a wreck 40 miles off North Carolina is the Pulaski, a ship that sank in 1838 with half its wealthy passengers.
The evidence came in the form of a candlestick holder, with the phrase "SB Pulaski" on the bottom.
"That stands for Steam Boat Pulaski," said Keith Webb of Blue Water Ventures International, a partner in the recovery effort with Endurance Exploration Group. "This is a game changer. I have believed for so long we were in the right spot, and there's nothing like the feeling of having something like this confirmed."
A token with the name of the ship has also been found at the site, bringing it to two identifying pieces, he said.
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The sinking of the Pulaski has often been referred to as "the Titanic of its time," because the ship was state of the art and its 200-plus passengers were among the wealthiest and most influential families in the Southeast, say historians.
What Webb has proven is that the ship went down more than 10 miles farther out to sea than historians originally believed and that it sank so fast, passengers had little time to gather their money and jewelry.
Dr. Joseph Schwarzer, director of the North Carolina Maritime Museums, was among the historians waiting for Webb to prove he was in the right spot. Schwarzer was hoping for the ship's bell, but he says a candlestick holder with the ship's name is just as good.
"That really is a smoking gun," said Schwarzer. "It's like finding proof of something which was not just history, but almost legendary. This is empirical evidence. The wreck is no longer folklore, on the pages of a book. There is an actually object that proves it is out there."
What historians want now is a chance to see the site "painstakingly studied," he said. Among the mysteries yet be solved, he says: What caused the ship to sink? Did the boilers explode, as legend has it, or was it something else?
Blue Waters Ventures and Endurance Exploration has archeologists visiting the sight constantly, along with Blue Water's divers. Webb says great care is being taken not to disturb the area, including not using suction dredge to remove the sand. He has invited a state archaeologist to dive the site with his team.
"We really want to find out what caused the explosion, and will continue to study the wreckage as a whole," Webb said.
The Pulaski was bound for Baltimore from Savannah when it sank around 11 p.m. on June 13, 1838 and disappeared. One hundred of the roughly 200-plus people on board died, including many who were "scalded to death by steam" from the exploding boilers, according to the NorthCarolinaShipwrecksBlog.spotcom.
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,” reports the blog.
Webb says it is clear passengers fled the ship without having time to gather their money, jewelry and other valuables.
Last week, divers found 68 silver coins, bringing the total number of gold and silver coins found on the wreck to 115. Divers have also begun pulling up keys, jewelry, along with a pocket watch and a gold plated box that is the size of a match box. "It has something inside that makes it very heavy for it's size," Webb says.
He believes divers could spend years at the site, which is more than 100 feet down in a spot where temperatures are 58 degrees and visibility is more than 70 feet. The wreck is also dangerously close to the gulf stream, Webb says.
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 will survey a few miles in each direction before the project is completed, Webb said.
The wreck itself is so old, it looks less like a ship and more like a 30-foot by 60-foot pile of copper, he said. The pile includes both the boilers and copper walls that surrounded the boilers, which are lapped onto each other, he said.
Evidence of a "violent" explosion has been found in the ruins, he added, including large pieces of copper blown hundreds of yards from the wreck.