Novel Idea – Savannah Magazine

Best-selling book prompts new Steamship Pulaski exhibit

IN A CITY known for its ghost tours and haunted holidays, it can be easy to forget the stories of the ports just a mile north. You have to ask yourself: if so many mysteries lurk in these places, then what exactly happened in the waters?

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

Bluffton-based author Patti Callahan gives us a starting point in her novel Survive the savannah, a comprehensive manifesto of one of the South’s greatest maritime tragedies. The book – a The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly and USA today bestseller – tells the true and long-forgotten story of the Steamship Pulaski, a steamship destroyed by a boiler explosion as it sailed from Savannah in 1838. The tragedy is often referred to as “the Titanic of its time and, although it devastated the surrounding communities, not enough of the story was recorded at the time to provide a full account.


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


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

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

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

Callahan says of the novel, “I knew I wanted to tell a story that would reflect the past and the present together.” Finding Eldred would make him a key collaborator in bringing his vision of Survive the savannah live.

From there, as if the story wanted to be told, the 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 frozen hands at 11:05 p.m. (the ship exploded around 11 p.m.).

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

“When lost stories resurface, I think it sparks new ones,” Callahan says. These and other artifacts provide a rich picture, not only of the passengers on board, but also of life in Savannah in the early 1800s. One year after the book’s release and amid new discoveries, all of these elements will come together in a new exhibit at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, Rising to the Surface: A Summoning of Savannah’s Titanic.

Wendy Melton, curator and acting director of the museum, shared that the exhibit highlights the ideas and innovations of Savannah’s early years. “We begin the exhibit in 1818, when steamboats were virtually ubiquitous. It was an exciting time. You could even say it was the first golden age in Savannah.

The exhibition is where Eldred’s findings and Callahan’s storytelling converge. Much like the details in a book should drive the narrative forward, Melton said “chosen artifacts should have a purpose,” so viewers understand the maritime mystery from start to finish.

But this exhibition is not a retrospective; his story is alive and unfolding, even now. As visitors peruse the artifacts pulled from the waters, they must remember the many personal effects still found off the coast of North Carolina. In many ways, Melton invites us to be part of the ongoing story – it’s the one visitors can now enjoy at the museum until the end of the year.


For more information on visiting the exhibit, visit shipsofthesea.org.

Irene B. Bowles