The wind and the waves peeled back layers of Cumberland Island sand last December to reveal a piece of history: the wooden bones of a long-lost cargo ship.
Archaeologists surmised from the gunnel and wooden nails that the 100-foot-long vessel was at least 150 years old, possibly a blockade runner used during the Civil War to transport guns, food and soldiers past Union forces.
Experts believe the so-called “Cumberland Shipwreck,” never documented, could be a major historical discovery. So they did what the state of Georgia usually does with such significant maritime finds: They took samples, re-covered the ship in sand, then walked away.
At least 1,200 historically significant ships — dating to the 1730s, by one respected reckoning — have gone down in Coastal Georgia waters. Revolutionary War gunships. Civil War Ironclads. Whaling ships. Cotton schooners. Paddle-wheel steamers. WWII oilers.
Not a single coastal shipwreck, though, has been excavated and put on permanent display. Florida and the Carolinas do a more thorough job investigating, cataloging, preserving and exhibiting their underwater booty and profiting from the tourism it attracts. North Carolina, for example, attracted 400,000 visitors last year to its three maritime museums.
Georgia’s neighbors spend more money on maritime archaeology and employ more staff. They also tap more public and private resources to discover what’s underwater and if it’s worth preserving.
Meanwhile, Georgia gets by with one maritime archaeologist, a donated Boston Whaler and a budget of $71,000 per year – which includes the scientist’s salary.
“We have a rich history – I’d put it up against any of our neighboring states,” said David Crass, the historic preservation director for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “But Georgia has not traditionally stressed the maritime portion of our heritage.”
With limited budgets, states must prudently decide what part of their maritime history to highlight. Once a wreck is found, for example, it is typically surveyed and cataloged and left in place. Reburying in mud or sand preserves the vessel in a cost-efficient manner.
Georgia may soon begin to recapture a critical piece of its maritime history with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps, armed with $14 million, will raise the remains of the CSS Georgia, a Civil War Ironclad sitting on the bottom of the Savannah River a few miles east of the city’s picturesque waterfront.
Judy Wood, a maritime archaeologist newly retired from the corps in Savannah, documented the 1,200 shipwrecks off Georgia’s coast between 1738 and 1890. Her database was compiled over 25 years of researching shipping records, newspaper accounts, personal diaries and other sources.
Up until the 1800s, Georgia life revolved around the coast as most citizens lived within 50 miles of the ports and the commercial hubs of Savannah, Sunbury, Darien, Brunswick and St. Marys. Traders along major rivers, including the Altamaha, Ogeechee and Savannah, delivered deer skins, timber and naval stores to ocean-going vessels. Sloops ferried rice and cotton from coastal plantations to port towns.
Georgia is blessed, or cursed, with a hundred-mile coastline and 2,344 miles of shoreline wending in and around inlets and islands. Its shallow waters, filled with shifting shoals and barrier islands, have befuddled mariners for centuries. Bad weather amplified navigational challenges.
A half-dozen major hurricanes in the 19th century sent dozens of ships to the bottom, Wood’s research shows, including the storm of 1893 that sundered 32 steamers, ferries, barks, sloops and tugboats.
Wrecks “tend to cluster around the mouths of ports because ships would see a storm coming in and try to make it to a port in time,” Wood said. “The outgoing guys, if something was wrong, they could wait for their weather window. But if they were incoming from the Caribbean or Europe, they had to deal with the weather at hand.”
Wood documented a rich history of maritime misery. In 1780, as the Revolutionary War raged, the HMS Defiance, a 64-gun British warship, sank off the coast near Tybee Island. A hundred years later, the Petrel, a Massachusetts whaler, ran aground on Jekyll Island, although 85 barrels of sperm oil and whale bones were salvaged.
Wood relishes the tale of The Albion, a British merchant ship that lost its mast in the Hurricane of 1824 near Sapelo Island. En route to Ireland from Honduras with a cargo of mahogany, The Albion drifted for five days with five sailors lashed to the poop deck to keep from going overboard.
“A fellow sufferer on board was an unfortunate monkey” who was “killed and dried (and) eaten raw with some rain,” reported the Daily Georgian, a defunct Savannah newspaper.
The Civil War in Georgia – on dry land, at least — is well-documented with museums, battlefields and roadside markers memorializing triumphs and defeats. Yet the coastal waters hide a slew of fascinating Civil War wrecks, including the USS Water Witch commandeered by Confederate troops in Savannah; the Rattlesnake blockade runner sunk by Union forces on the Ogeechee River; and, of course, the CSS Georgia.
“Should we be preserving more? Looking for more?” asked Ken Johnston, executive director of the nonprofit National Civil War Naval Museum. “Absolutely, especially if it illustrates a particular story or historical point, like the CSS Hunley or the Titanic.”
Johnson’s museum displays portions of a gunboat and an ironclad scuttled on the Chattahoochee River as the war ended in 1865 and Union troops converged. It also has a mock-up Water Witch out front beckoning tourists. But the museum is located in Columbus, 250 miles from the coast.
Meanwhile, archaeologists have covered the Cumberland Shipwreck in sand to prevent salty air, wind, waves and poachers from further harming it.
Excavation and preservation don’t come cheap. Experts say it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to dig up the mysterious vessel, preserve its wood gunnels and iron fasteners and display them in a temperature-controlled room.
“Is it something that has enough cultural and historic weight behind it to make it worth preserving? It’s a very expensive proposition,” Johnston said.
The CSS Jackson, a 225-foot-long ironclad brought up in the early 1960s from Chattahoochee River muck, sat in the open air for three decades until $8 million was raised privately to build the humidified naval museum in Columbus.
“How many Ironclads do we need to excavate given the amount of money it takes to mount something like that?” said John Caramia, director of interpretive programs for the Coastal Heritage Society in Savannah. “It’s got to be an incredibly historic object that governments have an interest in and want to preserve.”
Florida hired its first underwater archaeologist in 1964. Today, the Sunshine State employs three full-time underwater scientists who work closely with universities, museums and historical societies to identify and preserve still-submerged wrecks.
South Carolina counts four maritime archaeologists and a budget — supplemented by a variety of private, public and nonprofit sources — at least five times larger than Georgia’s. Like Georgia, though, South Carolina focuses mainly on surveying and cataloging shipwrecks.
“Full-scale recovery is usually not the way to go,” said Jim Spirek, who heads the state’s maritime research division. “It would require a lot of money up front before we (excavate) something huge. The Hunley is a rarity.”
Located in 1995 and retrieved from Charleston’s harbor five years later, the CSS Hunley sits in a 90,000-gallon conservation tank in North Charleston. Visitors pay $12 to a nonprofit corporation that preserves the Confederate submarine and hopes to one day display it in a museum.
Resurrecting and restoring the Hunley has cost an estimated $20 million, with private sources covering 70 percent of that amount. A North Charleston museum, expected within eight years, could cost upward of $40 million and would be the state’s third museum dedicated to its seafaring history.
In North Carolina, private sponsors raised $450,000 to pull up the final remains pirate Blackbeard’s 17th century flagship, and two cannons were pulled from waters near Beaufort earlier this month. State taxpayers covered the $1.5 million spent the last fiscal year to run the N.C. museums, which don’t charge admission.
“We’ve got signature projects out there, just like North Carolina,” said Crass, the Georgia preservationist. “We just haven’t reached the point of critical mass where we can bring resources to bear on that project. We’re missing a tremendous opportunity.”