Much is known about the British passenger liner the Titanic which sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg. But 76 years before the Titanic disaster was the explosion of the luxury Steamship Pulaski, known as the “Titanic of the South,” carrying Savannah residents with it to the bottom of the Atlantic.
One of the greatest disasters known to Savannah and Charleston was nearly forgotten. Now the story is being told at Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum in a new exhibition, Rising to the Surface: A Summoning of Savannah’s Titanic.
“We've had a model of the Pulaski in our collection since the 90’s, it's always been part of our story. I just don't know that it was as globally known as it is now after the discovery of the wreck site and Patti's book,” said Wendy Melton, museum curator and interim executive director of Ships of the Sea.
The display is curated by Melton and is strengthened by contributions from New York Times best-selling author Patti Callahan in her recently released book, and shipwreck hunter Micah Eldred, who found the wreckage of the Pulaski in 2018.
“Rising to the Surface” opens at Ships of the Sea Friday, June 17 with an opening reception with Callahan delivering observations on what is known and what can be imagined about that ill-fated night. Joining her will be Eldred, who uncovered the real-life story while unraveling one of our country’s most durable maritime mysteries.
“Patti and Micah’s input has been integral to the Rising to the Surface exhibition,” said Melton. “Incorporating some of Patti’s research and Micah’s artifacts helped us create a richly layered exhibit that brings the tragic story back to life.”The explosion of the Steamship Pulaski during the night of June 14, 1838, killed wealthy businessmen and families from Savannah and Charleston, enslaved individuals, seamen, and a former U.S. Congressman. The ship sank 30 miles off the coast of North Carolina with the loss of two-thirds of her passengers and crew. Of the nearly 200 crew and passengers aboard the ship, history records 59 survivors.
Eldred is the founder and CEO of the Endurance Exploration Group, which discovered the Pulaski shipwreck in 2018 about 30 miles off Wilmington, North Carolina, in what Eldred terms a “shallow wreck.”
Callahan has fascinated readers with her historical fiction novel about the Pulaski called “Surviving Savannah.” The book was published by Berkley in March of 2021.
Callahan was only three weeks into her research and plotting the storyline for her book when a headline appeared on her computer screen stating the shipwreck of the Pulaski had been found. Since then, Callahan and Eldred have spoken many times, and together they provide a full picture of the Pulaski, past and present.
“My initial interest in it just was solely because I love the area. It seemed like a story that really had been lost over time and I was shocked I hadn't heard of it. I was also inspired by the Pulaski tales of survival, how the city of Savannah was part of this story, and how the Lowcountry was affected by this tragedy,” said Callahan.
In the novel, Everly Winthrop, a fictional SCAD history professor, is asked to guest-curate an exhibit of the recovered artifacts: coins, candlesticks, and a gold pocket watch with the hands frozen at the time of the explosion. Winthrop mirrors Callahan’s real life story when researching the ship, in some respects.
“Everly is a present-day modern museum curator. She is the one who is working with the shipwreck hunter to do exactly what I did, piece together that night, put together an exhibit, and come to terms with a loss of her own while trying to figure out what happened that night on the ship to solve a mystery,” said Callahan.
Everly's research leads her to the astounding history of a family of eleven who boarded the Pulaski together, and the astonishing stories of two women from this family: a known survivor, Augusta Longstreet, and her niece, Lilly Dawson, who was never found, along with her child.
These aristocratic women were part of Savannah's society, but when the ship exploded, each was faced with tough and heartbreaking decisions. Callahan’s book is an exploration of what women will do to endure in the face of tragedy, the role fate plays, and the countless ways people survive the surviving.
“I wanted to tell this story from the women's point of view. Most shipwreck books are told from the captain or the second. Since only four women survived, I chose two women who were saved in two different ways, one on a lifeboat and one floating on the remnant of the promenade deck so that you, as the reader, can see the different ways that people handled it, how they survived was powerful,” said Callahan.
Callahan says overall the reception to her book has been amazing and she is pleased with its reception in Savannah.
“I think people love to know more about the place they already love and when you dig up a lost story like this, it helps you know the place you love even better,” said Callahan.
The Georgia Historical Society was one of Callahan’s strong sources of finding information about the Pulaski and the people on it. They had papers on the Gaza Bugg Lamar family, which is the family she fictionalized in the novel.
She said Wendy Melton and The Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum was also very useful when she was writing this novel. Through all her research it was important for Callahan to display the facts.
“I didn't want to tell the story without it being factually true. It is historical fiction, so I can embellish the way people might have felt or what they would have said but the pure facts, I didn't want to part with those so that is why I did this in-depth research,” said Callahan.
Callahan will help share more of those facts while Eldred will share some of the amazing artifacts and things his team has discovered at the event on June 17.
Tickets to the event are still available. After the lecture, guests will enjoy a guided tour of the exhibition. The exhibition will be on display until the end of the year. For more information on the opening event or exhibit, visit shipsofthesea.org