Survey uncovers shipwreck clues near Columbia

By on October 17, 2011

UNC-CSI Maritime Heritage Program head Nathan Richards and graduate student David Butaro examine data and imagery from a side scan sonar. (UNC-CSI)

Maritime archeologists have just completed a survey of the Scuppernong River and Bulls Bay near Columbia, uncovering potential new shipwrecks and data about known vessels that were wrecked or abandoned.

The Scuppernong River has a rich history of settlements and maritime industry, said Nathan Richards, a maritime studies professor at East Carolina University and the interim head of the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute’s Maritime Heritage Program.

“This area is really untapped,” he said of the Scuppernong River. “This is the first extensive archeological survey done of the whole river system.”

Prior to this venture, limited research was done in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the state near the Columbia waterfront. Some artifacts and timbers of the well-known passenger steamer the Estelle Randall were recovered. The steamer sank near the Columbia waterfront in 1910.

Richards, who led East Carolina University’s Advanced Methods in Maritime Archeology class in the project, says he is now compiling the findings of the survey, which provides never-before-seen high resolution imagery of the river bottom using side-scan sonar. Magnetometers were also used to detect human-made disturbances on the river floor. Both tools are standard in shipwreck discovery.

Side scan image of the Estelle Randall, a 112-foot-long steamer sank near the Columbia waterfront on Jan. 18, 1910. (UNC-CSI)

The survey now gives maritime archaelogists a much better picture of the Scuppernong riverbed and its shipwrecks. The imagery shows how intact not only the Estelle Randall is, but other shipwrecks in the river that little is known about. The 200-foot Estelle Randall, Richards said, was the perfect shipwreck to show students how to use the side-scan sonar and magnetometers because its whereabouts are so obvious and known.

“You can throw a stone off the dock there and hit the shipwreck,” he said.

Students also surveyed about nine other potential shipwrecks. Once the information is compiled, researchers will have a submerged cultural inventory of the region.

“We will know what we have and what the next steps to take are and if there is a good reason to send divers down to get more information,” Richards said.

Graduate student William Schilling deploys the side scan sonar off the research vessel. (UNC-CSI)

Richards’ class may have also located two other ships that were known to go down in the area but have never been found. Two potential spots were identified where the Lawrence may be located.

The schooner, built in Columbia in 1849, was abandoned in the mid-1880s near Spruill’s Bridge and was obstructing navigation. It was pulled out of the water by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and dumped again a short distance from the original site.

The Marguerite, an oil steamer built in Elizabeth City in 1903, is recorded to have burnt near Spruill’s Bridge in 1933. But Richards said there is very little research on the ship. “If it is there, it hasn’t been seen since 1933,” he said.

“We found a lot of interesting targets upriver, as well, where there are no historical records of known shipwrecks,” he added.

Richards presented the preliminary results from the project on Oct. 6 at the Walter B. Jones Center for the Sounds Auditorium in Columbia.

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