Divers recovering artifacts off the steamship Pulaski have made an eerie find that gives credence to eyewitness accounts of the night the ship sank in 1838, taking some of the nation’s richest people to the bottom of the Atlantic.
A mysterious “grapefruit-sized” encrustation found at the site off North Carolina’s coast turned out to be a heavily decorated solid gold pocket watch attached to a gold chain.
However, what has historians buzzing is the fact that the watch’s hands are frozen at 11:05.
That’s 5 minutes after the time witnesses say the ship’s boilers exploded on the night of June 14, 1838. The dramatic sinking, often referred to as “the Titanic of its time,” occurred 180 years ago this month.
“We were shocked,” said Max Spiegel of Certified Collectables Group, which is handling preservation of Pulaski artifacts.
“It’s very unusual to see an artifact with that sort of impression of a historic moment, when a ship sank. Think about how fragile the watch’s hands are, yet they survived in that exact position. It’s one of the most exciting finds we’ve handled, and we’ve done a half dozen shipwrecks.”
The sinking of the Pulaski continues to intrigue historians for countless reasons, including the fact that its ill-fated passengers were then among the wealthiest people in the Eastern United States.
Nearly half of the 200 people on board died while headed from Savannah, Georgia, to Baltimore, Maryland, according to the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Witness accounts say the starboard boiler exploded at about 11 p.m., setting off a grisly chain reaction of death that saw people thrown overboard and drowned, scalded to death, and cut by flying debris, according to state historians. Survivors floated up to four days on chunks of the wreck before being rescued, say historians.
For the past 180 years, the location of the wreck was among the big mysteries.
Then Florida-based Blue Water Ventures International found two artifacts engraved with the name “Pulaski,” confirming its discovery. Blue Water has been working seven months on the wreck, in partnership with Endurance Exploration Group, which holds rights to the site.
Among the revelations so far: The ship sank 10 miles further out to sea than historians originally thought. It’s 40 miles out, 115 feet down and surrounded by sharks that have a keen interest in the divers, according to Keith Webb, head of Blue Water Ventures International.
The divers have found items valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, including 150 gold and silver coins dating back to 1759.
Webb considers the watch to be among the most important discoveries, however. Conservation work continues on the timepiece, which he says is covered with intricate engravings.
He is intent on solving the Pulaski’s many mysteries, including the possibility of showing that the ship’s owners may have caused the disaster by pushing the vessel beyond its capabilities.
The artifacts include silverware, keys, thimbles, rare coins and even a mysterious gold box that conservators have yet to get open.
The ship’s 14-foot by 12-foot anchor has also been found, but the bell remains elusive, Webb said. “I can’t believe we can find a thimble on the bottom of the ocean but not a ship’s bell,” he said.
One thing that he believes will never be known is if the man who owned the gold watch made it off the ship alive or was among those who died.
The discovery of the watch is a story in itself, he says. A diver working 200 feet off the wreck site found a curious-looking encrustation that turned out to have a fancy gold chain woven into it.
The watch was a “powerful” status symbol that would have been worn by the wealthiest of men in the early 1800s, he said.
“We’ve already been contacted by collectors who have shown an interest,” said Webb. “To me, that thing is priceless. It establishes and verifies the time the ship went down. How can you put a price on that kind of discovery?”
But it’s possible even that find will be topped in coming weeks, Webb admits.
Sonar shows an area south of the wreck site filled with odd shadows. Webb believes it’s where the passengers’ steamer trunks landed, each one crammed with the clothing and valuables wealthy passengers considered important for their travels around the world.
“It’s showing up (on sonar) as squares and straight lines, and nothing on the bottom of the ocean is a straight line,” Webb says.
“We think it might be the steamer trunks, or the metal bands and hinges that held the trunks together. There’s no telling what we’ll find there.”
Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs