There’s a mysterious spot about 20 miles off South Carolina where centuries-old gold coins have been found strewn across the ocean floor for decades.
It’s believed to be the final resting place of the SS North Carolina, a steamship that historians say sank in 1840 under bizarre circumstances.
In November -- 178 years after the ship went down -- an expedition is being launched to “reconfirm with absolute proof” the wreck’s identity and unravel the mystery of why the North Carolina seemingly sank itself by heading straight into the path of another ship.
But make no mistake: It’s the stories of gold coins the are driving the expedition.
Project partners Blue Water Ventures International and Endurance Exploration Group are convinced hundreds of highly prized gold and silver coins are still on the wreck, promising a big pay off.
The SS North Carolina sank so quickly that few of its affluent passengers could gather their belongings before boarding a rescue ship, say the organizers. Among the passengers was a businessman who reportedly lost $20,000 in gold pieces, says Blue Water Ventures International.
“You can imagine what they would be worth now,” said Keith Webb of Blue Water Ventures. “Some of these coins are extremely rare and would help fill in gaps when it comes to the history of American coins. We know of 10 gold pieces that were recovered at the site years ago, and they sold for $70,000 each.”
Artifacts could start coming up in the next few weeks, as divers map the site and do an archaeological survey, Webb said. However, the bulk of the discoveries will likely be in May or June, the traditional diving season, he said.
The site, known among scuba divers as “The Copper Pot Wreck,” sits just over 50 feet down, about 20 miles of Murrells Inlet, Webb said.
For the past year, Blue Water Ventures and Endurance Exploration have been recovering artifacts from another Carolinas shipwreck, The Pulaski, which sank in 1838. Five hundred gold and silver coins have been found on the Pulaski, including some of the “oldest and rarest United States gold coins ever found on a shipwreck,” says Webb.
“The SS North Carolina is of interest because of its similarity to the Pulaski,” he says. “We believe discoveries similar to those being made on the Pulaski will also be found on the North Carolina.”
Divers have been plucking artifacts off the North Carolina for years, leading to widespread tales of buried treasure. In 1996, items found included 18 U.S. gold Quarter Eagles, half dollar denomination coins and two ornate gold pocket watches, reported Blue Water Ventures.
The SS North Carolina was sailing from Wilmington to Charleston when it collided with the Steamship Governor Dudley in July of 1840, according to the North Carolina Shipwrecks Blog.
“The Dudley...(hit) her amidships, between the ladies’ and gentlemen’s cabins with a splintering bow that tore four feet from the Dudley’s bow and cut the Carolina almost in two,” says the blog. “Within 10 minutes, the North Carolina settled to her decks and soon disappeared.”
The passengers were rescued by the Dudley, but all “possessions and the cargo on board were lost,” according to a 1997 report by MAREX International. The 56 passengers included “about a dozen senators and congressmen,” WPDE reported in 2012.
Another mystery waiting to be solved, says Webb, is what became of the large cargo of government mail that went down with the ship. Some of the packages may have held valuables, he says.
“What was in those packages?” Webb wonders. “We don’t know, but we’d like to find out...Maybe it was more than just paper, which would be long gone.”