Loss of the SS United States off Cape Romain




Wreck of the Well-Known Steamer of the Boston and Savannah Line Off Cape Romain

“Charleston, April 6. — The steamship United States, from Boston for Savannah, with a general cargo, went ashore on Cape Romain Sunday night. The ship has sprung aleak and the lower hold is full of water. The steam-tug H. Buck has arrived here from Georgetown, and brought the first officer of the steamship United States. The steamship left Boston on Thursday last, and proceeded on her voyage without mishap until Sunday night, when she met with a hazy atmosphere and with strong southwest winds. While the ship was running on her course she suddenly went ashore in about twelve feet of water in the vicinity of Cape Romain, a little to the northward and about half-way between Georgetown and this port. On Monday the steamer Planter, from Charleston for Georgetown, passed her and soon after returned with the steamer Louisa and endeavored to haul the stranded vessel off the shoal. The attempt was unsuccessful, and the two vessels returned to Georgetown. The United States remained easy in her position until Monday night, when the sea increased and the vessel sprang aleak. When the first officer left her this morning at 8 o’clock, there was from twelve to fourteen feet of water in her hold and she was hard aground. The first officer, immediately upon his arrival, engaged the tugs Wade Hampton and Republic, which left the city tonight for the scene of the mishap. The will endeavor to put out and tow off the stranded ship. If the tugs succeed in relieving her, she will probably be towed into this report for repairs.”[1]

The Stranded Steamship

“The steamers Planter and Louisa, which arrived here from Georgetown at a late hour on Tuesday night, brought a portion of the cargo of the steamship United States, which has been previously reported ashore off Cape Romain. This freight, consisting of articles of general merchandise, constituted the “between decks” cargo, and was saved in good condition and landed at Accommodation wharf. The vessels also brought the boats, furniture and a portion of the tackle of the United States. Capt. S.H. Matthewes, the master of the vessel, came to the city with a portion of the crew, and leaving the first officer, Mr. A.B. Crooker, here, returned with the tugs Wade Hampton and Republic to the scene of the wreck. The two passengers who were on the United States also came to the city on the Planter, and went to Savannah yesterday morning by rail.

The Charleston tugs reached the city last night with Capt. Matthewes on board, having failed to pump out the water from the stranded vessel, which had bilged. The sea was too heavy for the tugs to work alongside, and at 2 P.M. the captain determined to abandon her. A portion of the cargo and tackle was secured and placed on board a pilot boat from Georgetown, and the crew, numbering twenty-seven persons, was transferred to the tug Forrest City, which had arrived at the scene of the wreck with the agent of the vessel from Savannah, and sent to that city. When the vessel was abandoned there was fourteen feet of water in her hold, and the wreck was fast going to pieces. The steam wrecking flat Uncle Sam, under the command of Capt. Smith, was left alongside with a view to save whatever could be secured from the wreck.

Capt. Matthewes and his first officer will remain here for several days to look after the cargo that has been saved. He could give no information as to the value of the vessel and cargo, or the amount for which they were insured.”[2]

The Wreck is Abandoned

The steam tug Forest City, which was sent to the assistance of the SS United States, ashore at Cape Romain, South Carolina, on April 5, 1881, returned to Savannah, Georgia, on April 7, 1881, with the crew (27 in number). The steamers Laura and Planter arrived at Charleston from Georgetown on the 7th with a portion of the cargo of the stranded vessel, which consisted of general merchandise constituting the “between decks” cargo, and was in good condition. The steamers also had on board the boats, furniture, and a portion of the tackle of the United States, and two passengers. The Charleston tugs had failed to pump out the water from the stranded vessel, which had bilged. When abandoned she had 14’ of water in her hold, and the wreck was fast going to pieces. The steam wrecking flat Uncle Sam, under the command of Captain Smith, was left alongside with a view to save whatever could be secured from the wreck. Mr. James M. Barnard of the firm Richardson & Barnard of Savannah, agents of the vessel, visited the wreck and was satisfied it could not be saved.[3]

Sold For Salvage

The steamer United States was sold at auction in Charleston, S.C., on Monday, April 11, 1881, on account of the underwriters by Mr. Gerhard Riecke. The vessel was “knocked down at $1,050 cash, the purchaser pledging himself to remove all of the cargo possible on salvage.” The ship was valued at about $60,000 and was partially insured. She belonged to F.W. Nickerson & Company of Boston, who spent $20,000 on her in the summer of 1880, putting in new boilers and refitting the vessel. The cargo, which was valued at about $25,000, was insured in Northern Companies. A portion of the cargo, which was saved from the wreck, was to be sold at auction at Charleston on April 13 1881.[4]


[1] The Boston Daily Globe, (Boston, Massachusetts, USA), Wednesday Evening, Vol. XIX, No. 96, April 6, 1881, p. 1, c. 3

[2] The News and Courier, (Charleston, South Carolina, USA), Thursday, April 7, 1881, p. 4, c. 2

[3] Savannah Morning News, (Savannah, Georgia, USA), Friday, April 8, 1881, p. 3, c. 5

[4] Savannah Morning News, (Savannah, Georgia, USA), Wednesday, April 13, 1881, p. 3, c. 2

More on the SS United States

Information on: Her Discovery by Dr. E. Lee Spence

Information on: Costs & Values in 1881 & 2013

Ownership of Salvaged Gold & Artifacts

These pages deal with the steamer United States, which was shipwrecked off Cape Romain, South Carolina in 1881 and discovered and identified by underwater archaeologist Dr. E. Lee Spence. He also discovered other abandoned wreckage in the same general vicinity. In 2012, the Federal District Court ruled that Spence was the “true and exclusive owner of the abandoned wreckage” (which includes the United States and all of the other shipwrecks that he had found in the specific area designated in his court filing), which means he is already the legal owner of any and all shipwreck gold, silver, cannons, hulls, engines, rigging, and other artifacts on those wrecks. To learn more about shipwrecks in general, check out Spence’s page on Facebook. This is not and should not be considered part of any offering memorandum.