A Brief History
On August 8, 2000, 136 years after she sank with all hands, the Confederate submarine, the Hunley, was raised to the surface. Throughout history, men have built famous ships, and many of those ships have found their way to the bottom of the sea. Some of the shipwrecks have been found and either raised, salvaged, explored, or made into shrines. Here we list 10 of the most famous ones.
10. Sultana, 1865.
About 1,800 lives were lost when this Mississippi side-wheel steamboat’s boiler blew up in 1865. Her wreck lay undiscovered until 1982, when it was found in a soybean field outside of Memphis, Tennessee about 2 miles from the river. The remains of the ship were found under more than 30 feet of soil. She had been carrying many Union soldiers who had just been released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. Almost 800 of those killed came from Ohio, and around 500 of the dead hailed from Indiana.
9. HMS Pandora, 1791
A relatively small ship, the brig was only a bit over 114 feet long and 32 feet wide. Sent to find the mutineers from the HMS Bounty, the Pandora rounded up 14 of them on Tahiti but failed to find the rest despite months of searching. She ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and sank, killing 4 of the prisoners and 31 crew members. The surviving 89 crewmen and 10 prisoners set out in 4 small open boats for Timor, arriving in Kupang 17 days later. On the way, 16 more men died. The wreck was located by an Australian anti-submarine airplane in 1977 and has since become one of the most famous wreck sites in the Southern Hemisphere.
8. Medusa, 1816.
A French frigate and veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, the Medusa (or Meduse in French) was carrying passengers when she ran aground off the coast of Africa. When the ship appeared to be in danger of coming apart, the crew got into 2 launches, and the passengers were loaded onto a large makeshift raft (20 by 7 meters). The raft held 146 men and 1 woman and quickly proved to be of dubious seaworthiness. The crew in the 2 launches found towing the raft impractical and fearing the irate people on the raft, cut the doomed raft free. The hell that ensued on the raft was memorialized in a famous painting by Theodore Gericault called The Raft of the Medusa (Le Radeau de la Meduse). The “hell” we refer to was 13 days of suicide, murder, cannibalism and fierce thirst, leaving only 15 survivors. The wreck of the ship was found in 1980. Artifacts from the wreck are on display in the Marine Museum in Paris.
7. Edmund Fitzgerald, 1975.
All 29 crewmen died when the big ship went down in the “gales of November” in 1975, and Gordon Lightfoot made sure no one forgot about it in his 1976 smash hit song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Located by a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion anti-submarine plane only 4 days after her loss, the Great Lakes ore boat was found 530 feet beneath Lake Superior. At 729 feet long, 75 feet wide and drawing 25 feet of water, she was “bigger than most” of the Great Lakes ships, and in her 17-year career had traveled over a million miles. Despite numerous dives to the wreck, the cause of the ship’s sinking remains debated, with several theories presented.
6. Bismarck, 1941.
The wreckage of the mighty Bismarck was finally found in 1989 by the same oceanographer who located the Titanic. Bismarck sits more than 15,000 feet below the surface, pretty much intact and in good shape considering the hundreds of shells and several torpedoes that hit her. Analysis of the wreckage shows that the claims of Bismarck survivors that the ship was actually scuttled by the crew are true, much to the chagrin of the Royal Navy that likes to think it alone is responsible for the sinking.
5. CSS Hunley, 1864.
The ill-fated submarine was the first to successfully (kind of) sink an enemy ship in combat. Unfortunately, the explosion that sank the USS Housatonic is probably what also sank the Hunley, costing the entire crew their lives. Incredibly, the submarine had already sunk twice before during trial runs.
4. USS Monitor, 1862.
The famous combatant from the Battle of the Ironclads at Hampton Roads in the American Civil War was found in 1973 and has been partially salvaged. The USS Monitor had been designed for coastal waters and port protection, and was lost at sea in rough water while being towed. The remains of the ship can be seen in the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
3. USS Arizona, 1941.
Sunk in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor during the aerial surprise attack of December 7, 1941 (“a date that will live in infamy”), the USS Arizona has been allowed to remain there, visible from above, as a national shrine.
2. Nuestra Señora de Atocha, 1622.
Carrying a spectacular quantity of gold, silver and gems taken from Spain’s South American empire, this Spanish treasure ship is the stuff of dreams. Sunk in only 55 feet of water off the Florida Keys in a hurricane, Spain mounted a salvage effort but failed to find the wreck. Her sister ship was found and salvaged (about 50%), but it was not until 1985 when an American treasure hunter found the Nuestra Señora de Atocha after having looked for her for more than 16 years. The treasure is so vast and spectacular, and one ring alone is worth $500,000! The total value of the treasure has been estimated from anywhere between $450 million and $7.5 billion.
1. RMS Titanic, 1912.
The giant, fast-moving luxury cruiser was said to be unsinkable. The Titanic turned out to be quite sinkable, however, when she hit an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage. Discovered in 1985 at a depth of 12,415 feet, remote control submersibles have been used to salvage artifacts. In 1986 the first manned expeditions to the wreck of the Titanic were made. Relics from this wreck can be seen at the Luxor Las Vegas Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. The wreck itself is in bad shape and rapidly getting worse; the steel hull being eaten up by iron-eating bacteria.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which ones would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Miles, Jonathan. The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century. Grove Press, 2008.
Nichols, Judy. Titanic A to Z, The Story of the World’s Most Famous Shipwreck. Butterfly Valley LLC, 2012.
Spence, David. Famous Shipwrecks (Snapping-turtle Guide) (Snapping Turtle Guides). Ticktock Media, 2001.