Sonar reveals harrowing detail about notorious 1838 ship explosion off North Carolina

·5 min read

A surprising new discovery on the seafloor off North Carolina has added a harrowing detail to the legendary 1838 ship explosion referred to as “the Titanic of its time.”

The elusive stern of the steamship Pulaski has finally been found, proving the burning ship drifted out of control for more than three miles — possibly dragging desperate passengers with it.

Around half the 200 people aboard died, many of them among the wealthiest businessmen and landowners on the East Coast.

The surprising twist was revealed this month when a salvage team used high-tech sonar to survey areas far beyond the known wreck site. The ship’s keel was found almost a mile to the north and another large pile of debris sits two miles south. That pile includes what is likely the engines and a large circular object that could be the paddle wheel.

“The paddle wheel and engine might have been the first objects to hit the bottom of the ocean,” said Keith Webb, head of Florida-based Blue Water Ventures International.

“What we are discovering is that the heavier parts of the ships — any parts with some weight to them — were slowly falling off as the ship drifted. What we’re still trying to figure out is did the ship explode to the north and drift three miles south before going down, or was it the other way around.”

The newly discovered stern and keel are by far the largest part of the wreckage, Webb said, and it’s where the upper class passenger cabins would have been located.

The keel is mostly still intact, stretching 100 feet across the sea floor and sticking 2 feet out of the sand.

“There is so much debris there, it’s almost like a bomb went off,” Webb said. “There are piles of it and it’s sticking out of the sand in all directions.”

The team has yet to dive on the pile of wreckage to the south, but the sonar survey shows there are three distinct wreckage piles positioned in a straight line, he said.

Passengers were rich

The sinking of the Pulaski on June 14, 1838, has long intrigued maritime historians for countless reasons, including the fact most of its passengers were members of wealthiest families in the Southeast.

It was bound for Baltimore from Savannah when its boilers exploded around 11 p.m., about 40 miles off North Carolina. One hundred of the roughly 200 passengers and crew died, “many of whom were killed immediately by the scalding steam,” the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources reported.

“Of the passengers who were not killed instantly or who made it to the lifeboats, many floated on two large chunks of the wreck, while others drifted on pieces of furniture lashed together,” officials said. “Others drowned or perished when struck by falling wreckage.”

The location of the Pulaski remained a mystery until 2018, when Webb and and his partners Endurance Exploration began finding artifacts at the site with “S.S. Pulaski” etched onto them. The ship was believed to be most luxurious and swiftest steamship of its time, which is why it appealed to the wealthy and businessmen.

Webb’s team has explored only a fraction of the wreckage, but still found more than 500 gold and silver coins, along with nearly 10 gold watches. Some of the coins are extremely rare, dating to the late 1700s. Among the other artifacts found is an entire set of silverware, which the wealthy often took on voyages.

In one case, a watch was found with its hands frozen at 11:05. It will never be known if it stopped at 11:05 a.m. or p.m., but the Pulaski exploded at 11 p.m. on the night of its final voyage.

Another mystery

The discovery of the keel has created something of a mystery for Webb. It technically means he has spent 3 years diving on what he believes is not the main section of the shipwreck.

It’s just the boilers, which would not have been surrounded by wealthy people on the night of the explosion.

Yet, how has his team managed to find so much treasure? He has a theory.

“Maybe this is where some of the trunks drifted and ended up. We’ve found some coins in the shell of small lock boxes,” Webb said. “The wood had deteriorated, but the contents were in tact, including coins that were stacked 6 inches high.”

“We thought were on the part that was the main wreckage, but it’s not. It’s a very small part of it.”

Most of the discoveries have been items that belonged to men, he said. That means the most priceless discoveries could still be ahead.

Among the things he most hopes to find are ladies’ jewelry boxes laden with big, showy Victorian jewelry — gold, diamonds and pearls.

“We haven’t found the jewelry boxes the women had on board. That’s what we’ll find on the keel. People traveled with their valuables then. It was a status symbol and they pretty much took it all with them when they traveled and wore it,” Webb said.

“We could also find the remnants of mail bags that were on board, filled with valuables people were sending to Baltimore or areas they intended to visit later. The mail bags are rotted now, but likely still in place.”