North Carolina

19th-century shipwreck is suddenly turning up gold coins off South Carolina coast

Divers with Blue Water Ventures International pick through the debris at the shipwreck of the Steamship North Carolina off South Carolina.
Divers with Blue Water Ventures International pick through the debris at the shipwreck of the Steamship North Carolina off South Carolina. Blue Water Ventures International Photo

A 180-year-old shipwreck popular with scuba divers is proving to be a trove of rare coins and artifacts for a salvage project launched 20 miles off the South Carolina coast.

Known to divers as “The Copper Pot,” the wreck is actually the Steamship North Carolina, which collided with another boat in 1840 with hundreds of gold coins stuffed in passenger’s steamer trunks.

The first of the newly found coins -- “several” $5 gold pieces dating from the mid-1830s -- were brought up in late September, along with 19th Century dinnerware and marble, according to Blue Water Ventures International based in Florida.

“I can’t believe what we’re finding,” Keith Webb, president of Blue Water Ventures, told McClatchy news group. “The coins look almost as if they were just minted and it’s blowing our minds. It’s because they were hidden by a large piece of copper and were not moved around in the sand by the current.”

Blue Water Ventures and its partner Endurance Exploration Group issued a report that contends “the aggregate loss in money was large” when the ship went down, and would today be valued in the tens of millions of dollars -- mostly in gold coins. This includes one passenger who claimed he lost $15,000 in the incident.


Blue Water Ventures photo

However, Webb’s research suggests these won’t be the usual gold coins found on 19th Century shipwrecks. Many of the passengers were likely carrying coins from the newly commissioned U.S. Mint in Dahlonega, Georgia, which operated only 24 years.

Coins from the Dahlonega mint are rare and coveted by collectors and historians.

“Regardless of denomination, any high grade Dahlonega gold coin with a good strike... is a real treasure and based on past history has been a blue chip coin investment,” according to the

The S.S. North Carolina was previously searched for treasure by an outfit called MAREX, which salvaged $700,000 worth of coins in the late 1990s. MAREX ceased working the site in part because the coins were difficult to salvage.

Webb describes the wreck as 65 feet down, with about 5 feet visibility and unexpected shifts in the current. It also has some sharks. Adding to the challenge, he says, is the fact that research shows many of the artifacts settled as much as 5 feet into the sand and need to be dug out with special equipment.

Endurance Exploration has staked an admiralty claim to the wreck, giving them exclusive rights to salvage the site.

Divers have already done months of archaeological field work on the wreck, including magnetometer surveying, Webb said.

Along with coins, he is hoping to find silverware and antique watches that may be preserved to the point of repair.

Recovery efforts will continue -- weather permitting -- into November, he says.

The sinking of the Steamship North Carolina is one of the stranger shipwreck tales off the Carolinas in the 19th Century.

It went down 60 miles south of Wilmington near Murrells Inlet, S.C., early on July 25, 1840, after colliding with a sister ship, the Governor Dudley, The NorthCarolinashipwrecks.blogspots reports.

The Dudley hit the North Carolina “amidships between the ladies’ and gentlemens’ cabins,” almost cutting the ship in half, the blog site says. “Within ten minutes the North Carolina settled to her decks and soon disappeared,” the site reports.

All passengers and crew were hurriedly put on the Dudley, and most had no time to gather belongings in the havoc, according to a report by Blue Water Ventures.

Webb’s research indicates the steamer trunks might have been located in the same part of the ship as loads of mail. The ship is believed to have gone straight down in shallow water and has a large debris field.

The wreck site has long been popular with scuba divers because it’s easily accessible, according to

“Copper Pot is a 19th-century side wheel steamer 200 feet in length. At 19 miles offshore, the boiler, shaft and hull are still intact beneath 80 feet of water,” the vacation site says.

Blue Water is committed to searching the site, weather permitting, for several years

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Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, the LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.