Much is known about the British ocean liner Titanic which sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912 after hitting an iceberg. But 76 years before the Titanic disaster, the explosion of the luxurious Steamship Pulaski, known as the “Titanic of the South”, carried with it the inhabitants of Savannah to the bottom of the Atlantic.
One of Savannah and Charleston’s greatest known disasters has been almost forgotten. Now the story is being told at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum in a new exhibit, Rising to the Surface: A Summoning of Savannah’s Titanic.
“We have had a Pulaski model in our collection since the 90s, it has always been part of our history. I just don’t know if it was as world famous as it is today after the discovery of the wreck site and Patti’s book,” said Wendy Melton, museum curator and acting executive director of Ships of the Sea.
The exhibit is curated by Melton and is enhanced by contributions from New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan in her recently published book, and wreck hunter Micah Eldred, who found the Pulaski wreck in 2018 .
“Rising to the Surface” opens at Ships of the Sea on Friday, June 17 with an opening reception with Callahan commenting on what is known and what can be imagined about that unfortunate night. . She will be joined by Eldred, who uncovered the real story while unraveling one of our nation’s most enduring maritime mysteries.
“Patti and Micah’s contribution has been integral to the Rising to the Surface exhibit,” Melton said. “Incorporating some of Patti’s research and Micah’s artifacts helped us create a richly layered exhibit that brings tragic history to life.”The explosion of the Steamship Pulaski on the night of June 14, 1838 killed wealthy Savannah and Charleston businessmen and families, slaves, sailors, and a former U.S. congressman. The ship sank 30 miles off the coast of North Carolina, resulting in the loss of two-thirds of its passengers and crew. Of the approximately 200 crew and passengers aboard the ship, history records 59 survivors.
Eldred is the founder and CEO of Endurance Exploration Group, which discovered the Pulaski wreck in 2018 about 30 miles off Wilmington, North Carolina in what Eldred calls a “shallow wreck”.
Callahan fascinated readers with his historical fiction novel about the Pulaskis titled “Surviving Savannah”. The book was published by Berkley in March 2021.
Callahan had just three weeks into his research and was plotting his book’s script when a headline appeared on his computer screen indicating that the wreckage of the Pulaski had been found. Since then, Callahan and Eldred have spoken to each other on several occasions and together they paint a complete picture of the Pulaski, past and present.
“My initial interest in this area was simply because I love the area. It sounded like a story that had really been lost over time and I was shocked that I hadn’t heard of it. I was also inspired by Pulaski’s stories of survival, how the town of Savannah was part of that story, and how the Lowcountry was affected by this tragedy,” Callahan said.
In the novel, Everly Winthrop, a fictional SCAD history professor, is asked to organize an exhibition 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 history while researching the ship, in some ways.
“Everly is a modern museum curator today. She’s the one working with the wreck hunter to do exactly what I did, to piece together that night, put on an exhibit and come to terms with her own loss while trying to figure out what happened that night- there on the ship to solve a mystery,” Callahan said.
Everly’s research leads her to the amazing story of a family of eleven who boarded the Pulaski together, and the amazing stories of two women in that family: a known survivor, Augusta Longstreet, and her niece, Lilly Dawson, who was never found, and with her child.
These aristocratic women were part of Savannah society, but when the ship exploded, each was faced with difficult 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 myriad ways people survive survivors.
“I wanted to tell this story from the perspective of women. Most shipwreck books are narrated by the captain or mate. Since only four women survived I have chosen two women who were rescued in two different ways, one on a lifeboat and one floating on the rest of the promenade deck so that you as the reader can seeing the different ways people dealt with it, how they survived was powerful,” Callahan said.
Callahan says the overall response to her book has been amazing, and she’s happy with how it was received in Savannah.
“I think people like to know more about the place they already love and when you dig up a lost story like this, it helps you get to know the place you love better,” Callahan said.
The Georgia Historical Society was one of Callahan’s main sources of information about the Pulaski and its people. They had paperwork on the Gaza Bugg Lamar family, which is the family she romanticized in the novel.
She said that Wendy Melton and The Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum were also very helpful when she was writing this novel. Throughout all of his research, it was important to Callahan to show the facts.
“I didn’t want to tell the story without it being factually true. It’s historical fiction so I can embellish what people might have felt or what they might have said but the pure facts I didn’t want to part with that’s why I made this extensive research,” Callahan said. .
Callahan will help share more of these facts while Eldred will share some of the amazing artifacts and things his team uncovered during the June 17 event.
Tickets for the event are still available. After the conference, guests will be able to enjoy a guided tour of the exhibition. The exhibition will be visible until the end of the year. For more information on the opening event or exhibition, visit shipsofthesa.org