Novel Idea

Photo courtesy of WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A bestselling book spurs a new exhibition on Steamship Pulaski

IN A CITY known for its ghost tours and haunted stays, it can be easy to forget about the stories of the ports just a mile north. One has to wonder: If so many mysteries hide in these squares, then what, exactly, happened in the waters?

Steamship Pulaski explosion from the 1848 book by Charles Ellms // photo courtesy of NC DEPARTMENT OF CULTURAL RESOURCES

Bluffton-based author Patti Callahan gives us a place to start in her novel Surviving Savannah, a full manifest of one of the greatest maritime tragedies in the South. The book — a The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly and USA Today bestseller — chronicles the true and long-forgotten story of the Steamship Pulaski, a steamer wrecked by a boiler explosion upon its departure from Savannah in 1838. The tragedy is often called “the Titanic of its time” and, though it devastated surrounding communities, not enough of the story was recorded at the time to provide a full narrative.


“I knew I wanted to tell a story that would mirror the past and the present together.”  —  Patti Callahan


With the help of Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum and the Georgia Historical Society, Callahan began combing through the available archives. Then, just a few weeks into writing, news came ashore that the once-mythical Pulaski had been found.

Pocket watch recovered from the wreckage after the Steamship Pulaski explosion // Photo courtesy of SHIPS OF THE SEA MARITIME MUSEUM

Micah Eldred, CEO of the Endurance Exploration Group, located the first half of the ship 30 miles off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina, in 2018. A wreck in shallow water, the stern, which contained the passengers that drifted for three miles, was finally located in July 2021, just a few months after Callahan’s book hit the shelves. 

Callahan says of the novel, “I knew I wanted to tell a story that would mirror the past and the present together.” Eldred’s discovery would make him a key collaborator in bringing her vision of Surviving Savannah to life.

From there, as if the story wanted to be told, details naturally fell into place for the past and present narratives. Among the items recovered were a tag reading “SB Pulaski,” confirming the ship’s identity; a luggage tag with the name R. Lamar, one of Callahan’s key characters and the only item with a passenger’s full name; and a pocket watch with hands frozen at 11:05 (the ship exploded at approximately 11 p.m.). 

Surviving Savannah, available at local booksellers and amazon.com // photo courtesy of SHIPS OF THE SEA MARITIME MUSEUM

“When lost stories come to the surface, I think it spurs other stories,” Callahan says. These and other artifacts offer a rich picture, not only of the passengers onboard, but also of life in Savannah in the early 1800s. Now a year since the book’s release and in the midst of new discoveries, all these elements will come together in a new exhibition at Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, Rising to the Surface: A Summoning of Savannah’s Titanic.

Wendy Melton, curator and interim director of the museum, shared that the display highlights the ideas and innovations of Savannah’s first years. “We start the exhibit in 1818, when steamboats were basically ubiquitous. It was an exciting time. You might even say it was the first Gilded Age in Savannah.”

The exhibition is where Eldred’s discoveries and Callahan’s storytelling converge. Just like details in a book should drive the narrative forward, Melton said that, “The artifacts chosen should have a purpose,” so viewers will take in the maritime mystery from beginning to end.

But this exhibition isn’t a retrospective; its story is alive and unfolding, even now. As visitors browse the artifacts raised from the waters, they should remember the many belongings still being found off the coast of North Carolina. In many ways, Melton is inviting us to be a part of the ongoing story — it’s one that visitors can now enjoy at the museum until the end of the year.


To learn more about viewing the exhibit, go to shipsofthesea.org. 

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