As the morning sun rises, the dark shadow of a large boat glides over the site of the lost coastal freighter Eureka. Summer waters are warm and turquoise as the Gulf Stream current ebbs over the wreck. The white sandy bottom surrounds the embedded bones of the once proud Morgan Line steamer lost in a collision more than one hundred years ago on May 6, 1888. Eureka was carrying a cargo of silk, cloth, lace, hardware, and medicine to New York when she was struck amidships by the Benison, a sugar freighter heading to the port of Philadelphia. Built in Philadelphia in 1884, the 350-foot-long ship steamed less than four years between New York and New Orleans before her demise. In a dense fog the Eureka took a severe hit on its starboard side from the Benison, a British steamship, then caught fire and sank 58 miles southeast of Cape Henry, Virginia. It lies nearly the same distance from Oregon Inlet, North Carolina. This makes it a remote destination. It is a worthy voyage even though it is difficult to reach. Diving the Eureka is a splendid endeavor although the distance requires a sturdy craft that is comfortably fit for the long offshore passage.
Article and photos by Gene Peterson
Reaching the site, the dive boat blasts the horn and the anchor chain plummets through the darkness to the destination 115 feet below landing on the cold boilers of the old steamer. With the quick check of gauges, purging of the drysuits, and a few leaps over the side, divers fall down the stretched tether of anchor rode. Dropping past the Amber Jacks that prowl above the thermo cline, one can soon drop onto the rusting hulk. At the massive boilers, a good place to hook the grapnel, one can drop to the sand and begin the trek heading north taking a swim to the bow. Here, porcelain dolls, shoe polish, wine, ketchup, ginger ale and assorted whiskey bottles have been uncovered. A shy lobster may poke out his claw and retreat into his dark domain as one follows the outskirts of the twisted I-beams. The wreck is plentiful with a stew of fish including record size seabass with massive bubbled heads darting in and out of the skeleton of beams. Lucky pursuers can feather away silt covered dolls and bottles lying dormant in the time capsule. As divers fan out, waning lights shimmer in the distance. Back near the boilers, other divers blast off sandy crates with inverted scooters. In a team effort they unearth the lid of a black coal encrusted crate. Bottles, of all shapes and sizes appear. Upon closer examination, the dive lights reveal densely packed pickles, corn, peppers, and other numerous varieties of fruits. There too elixirs and cure-alls lie stacked, like rows of soldiers. Dozens of bottles pop out from the containers. Pisos Cure, shoe polish, Warner’s Safe Cure, and more pickle bottles appear. Carefully, the divers pack up the delicate assortment in mesh goody bags. In the shadow of the silent steam engine many more crates are outlined.
Traveling toward the stern one can easily navigate around the gigantic single cylinder reciprocal steam engine which rises on a slant, 20 feet off the bottom. Exploring the fringes of the area, one can ply to the wide stern and pick through another heaping amount of cargo barrels and containers. Here, more turquoise blue bottles speckle the rusted yellow sands and bits of brass parts, screws hinges and sewing machines lay scattered. One can barely circumnavigate the wreck by fin in one jaunt. Today, jetting through the waters with a powerful scooter may take one to distant faint outlying slices of yet to be discovered wreckage. There is so much to explore necessitating many descents to capture the vastness of the once mammoth ship.
Ascending the anchor line, the commotion of divers negotiating buoyancy changes, and shifting positions reflects the toil of the lengthy decompression. Bags of bottles softly tinkle as each diver tries to manage their fragile recoveries. The excitement of discovery makes time pass quickly as the seekers survey the mesh bags dangling from each other’s clutch. The varieties of their finds seem endless.
On the boat deck, a bottle show and tell begins. The camaraderie rages to full bloom as stories are exchanged, bottles are compared, and the cleaning of smelly putrid contents are emptied. On one trip, the memory of Dr. Scooville’s Blood and Liver Syrup remains indelible. When removing the cork; immediately my sinuses ran, eyes watered profusely, and I gagged hysterically. Kneeling on the dive platform, I found myself alone as the stench formed a malodourous cloud and the group retreated to the far side of the boat. “Time for lunch.” I heard our mate cry out in jest. My appetite was slightly diluted. Fortunately, I recovered quickly for the steaks and lobster later that evening. Although, I had to rinse my sinuses with dish soap to eliminate the enduring odor. The septic smell loitered in my senses for several weeks, but the bottle is a pristine treasure with a gorgeous light lime hue. Be wary cleaning these elixirs, the late century painkillers remain potent as a few divers found out while emptying the contents into a bucket. One diver exclaimed that his fingers tingled and became numb in the vintage feel-good solution when he washed out the potions.
During a relaxing surface interval lounging on the sun deck, we drew a diagram of the wreck, mapped out a dive plan, divided up into work teams, then shared more adventure stories and laughs. Over the next few dives the group worked the cargo in small groups. More bottles, dolls, deadeyes, portholes and other unique finds were released. Each dive team was successful, exuberant, and ready to share in their discoveries. History is told in many ways. Touching it is just as important as reading about it.
Other trips back to the Eureka were just as exciting and fruitful. One of the most unusual finds are the pickle and pepper bottles marked “His Majesties Cupboard” with the tasty gherkins still packed intact. No one in the group had the courage to test the sour dills. Imagine pickles from 1888, still colorful and packed in their original brine. A delightful treat! Not! An attempt to preserve the ancient condiment failed when one diver decided to keep some in a cooler and then transferred them to his refrigerator. Failing to consider the pressure change, the effervescing containers began to desaturate. In a short period of time, the tainted smelling pickles released a noxious gas and exploded. The sickening reek formed a fog permeating the area with a sulfurous vapor still receptive to the senses to this day.
Perhaps the best hoax played was packing some fresh Heinz jerkins into a cleaned bottle from a previous trip and returning. Hiding them in a goody bag during a descent and ascending the ladder with the bogus pickles, the diver ingested a few succulents as shocked onlookers stared in disbelief.
This four masted steamship and her cargo were valued at over one million dollars at the time of her loss. The tall masts remained a hazard to navigation until they were dynamited in the fall of 1888. The Baker Salvage Company worked the wreck site despite the foul weather and rough sea conditions for a few months. Little was retrieved due to the great distance offshore and the depth.
A good trip requires three variables, a stable dive platform with an attentive crew, amiable, safe divers and of course a great wreck. Those who have had the fortune to be on such trips have been consistently rewarded. The window of opportunity is mid-summer, when the water is usually calm with good visibility. Marine life during this time is most prolific. We have sighted on the surface and below, an assortment of species that included a pod of Right whales, large manta rays, dozens of turtles, dolphins, endless schools of amberjack, skipjacks, bonita, and humongous oceanic sunfish. On one extraordinary trip, a goliath oceanic sunfish splashed a few feet from our boat and allowed snorkelers to float by as it remained steadily beside us for more than an hour.
A very alluring wreck, the Eureka is frequented by tropical fish hanging under the boat and train-size sand tiger sharks hover over the site, adding an element of thrill to the serenity.
Eureka was first dived in the early 1990s, when Capt. Robert Hollowell, a commercial fisherman past on the numbers to Captain Mike Boring of the Sea Hunter. Mike discovered the capstan cover with the Eureka’s name identifying the wreck. Of all the discoveries, probably the most exciting continue to be the porcelain dolls. When divers first happen upon this part of the wreck, they looked like small children in a procession, littering the area where their wooden crates had disintegrated. These late-1800 china dolls are still very collectible and Eureka divers consider them the pinnacle of their finds. It has been verified that a few 100 plus-year-old bottles of admirable cognac have also been recovered and fondly revered. I can imagine a toast to celebrate a grand Eureka trip with such a vintage spirit would make quite the epic ride back to the dock… Good Hunting!