Long before Rose let Jack slip from her grasp on a floating door in James Cameron’s 1997 movie “Titanic,” the Pulaski steamboat exploded off the coast of North Carolina. Among the survivors were two strangers stranded on a makeshift raft surrounded by darkness.
But this time, there was room for both.
The Pulaski steamboat sunk about 40 miles from the coastline during the night of June 13-14, 1838, after a boiler exploded. It was carrying 36 crew members and nearly 150 passengers, according to the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Close to half of them died, per the blog Magic Masts and Sturdy Ships.
If legend is to be believed, two of the survivors got engaged while waiting to be rescued. They are identified in a newspaper clipping from the Delaware Gazette only as Mr. Ridge from New Orleans and Miss Onslow, “from one of the Southern States.”
Some have cast doubt on the Gazette’s poignant love story, as neither name appeared in articles published by North Carolina Standard in the weeks after the wreck.
But according to the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the two “drifted together on pieces of wreckage for a number of days, had plenty of time to get to know one another and after experiencing each other’s knack for enduring, became engaged at sea.”
‘The most painful catastrophe’
The Pulaski set off from Savannah, Georgia, with a stop in Charleston and was making its way to Baltimore, carrying some of the wealthiest families in the Southeast.
It has often been described as “the Titanic of its time” given the ship’s state of the art design and wealthy patrons.
The wreckage wasn’t discovered until 2018, McClatchy News reported, and it took several months for divers to find a candlestick holder with the phrase “SB Pulaski” engraved on the bottom to confirm it was the Pulaski.
Divers have recovered other objects since then — including a solid gold pocket watch and chain believed to be a “powerful” status symbol and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare gold and silver coins.
The disastrous event began around 11 p.m. on June 13, 1838, when a boiler exploded.
First mate Mr. Hibbert told the Wilmington Advertiser the boat’s midsection was “blown entirely to pieces” and the ship immediately began to sink. Two of the steamboat’s lifeboats long exposed to the sun reportedly wouldn’t hold water. The ship “went down with a crash” about 45 minutes after the explosion.
An 1838 article by The North Carolina Standard called it “the most painful catastrophe that has ever occurred upon the American Coast.”
“Youth, age and infancy have been cut off in a single night and found a common death under the same billow,” the newspaper reported.
Many of the ship’s passengers were “killed immediately by the scalding steam,” according to the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Some drowned and others died when they were hit by falling wreckage.
Just two lifeboats carrying survivors made it to shore in Onslow County, the state agency says.
But there were other survivors — people who clung to chunks of the wreckage or “drifted on pieces of furniture lashed together or small shreds of debris,” according to the DNCR. At least 30 people floating on the wreckage were reportedly rescued by a schooner four days after the wreck.
A lovers’ legend
The story of survivors Mr. Ridge and Miss Onslow was told to the Delaware Gazette in an article titled “Courtship on a fragment of the Pulaski.”
Mr. Ridge was reportedly on the deck of the ship when it was rocked by the explosion. According to the newspaper, he found some rope and cobbled together a raft with an old sail, an empty barrel and a couple of “settees,” or small couches.
“It was all the work of a moment,” the Delaware Gazette reported. “He believed death inevitable, and that effort was the last grasp at life.”
Shortly thereafter, according to the newspaper, Mr. Ridge caught site of a woman struggling in the water and pulled her aboard the raft. It was Miss Onslow, who reportedly told him the float could not support them both and that he would have to let her go, to which he responded, “We live or die together.”
The pair floated together for several days waiting to be rescued, according to the Delaware Gazette.
“And there, upon the ‘waters wild,’ amid the terror that surrounded, and the fate which threatened them, in the presence of an all-seeing God, did they pledge their mutual love, and declared if their lives were spared, their destiny, which fortune had united, should then be made as inseparable, as escape from it was now impossible,” the Delaware Gazette reported.
After their rescue, legend has it Mr. Ridge told Miss Onslow he’d lost his $25,000 fortune with the ship and offered to release her from the engagement.
But Miss Onslow chose to stay with him, saying poverty could not be a more desperate situation than that which they had already faced, according to the newspaper.
She also told him she was heiress to a $200,000 fortune, which would be worth $5.8 million today.