No plans to dig at Planter site
Author(s): BY ROBERT BEHRE
firstname.lastname@example.org Date: May 17, 2014 Section: PC South
The state has no immediate plans to investigate the possible site where the steamship Planter went
down, State Underwater Archaeologist Jim Spirek said. “We know that it’s there, and we’ll
monitor it,” he said, “but at this point, we have no active plans to engage and carry the
archaeological work any further. … Obviously, we don’t have to go right off the bat. It’s still in
place and seems to be doing fine.”
The state’s plans could change eventually, depending on money, educational research opportunities
and the public’s interest.
On Monday, officials with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries unveiled the results of
their 8-year search for the sidewheel steamship made famous when enslaved pilot Robert Smalls
sailed it out of Charleston Harbor and handed it over to the U.S. Navy in 1862.
Fifteen years later, the ship was making a regular run between Charleston and Georgetown when it
tried to help a ship stranded off Cape Romain and became stranded itself. Parts of it were salvaged
before its wooden carcass was abandoned.
Tim Runyan, an East Carolina University maritime studies professor and former director of
NOAA’s maritime history program, said a mix of documentary research, sonar and magnetometer
readings led NOAA’s team to pinpoint the Planter’s remains. He called it “a best guess, based on
Spirek said he has received all the documentation from the federal project, which was primarily an
educational outreach effort to the African-American community.
He estimated the likelihood that the Planter has been found at 80 percent — “with a little wobble
room” — and said further research could raise that as high as 99 percent.
Given that the ship was picked over after it beached, it’s unclear if anything could ever be
recovered to identify it with complete certainty.
Today, the remains are protected from the elements and from vandals, coated by a layer of sand
and sediment about 10 feet thick.
Spirek said the next archaeological step likely would be to conduct a side-bottom profile to figure
out how deep various sections of the 149-foot-long ship are buried.
A more ambitious excavation could cost $100,000 or more and would aim to find surviving cargo,
working implements and other pieces — not to raise the Planter’s delicate hull. It could be
identified based on its wood or evidence that it was salvaged before it was abandoned.
Scott Harris, a professor with the College of Charleston’s Department of Geology and
Environmental Geosciences, said he and his students would like to help study the site at some
They already are planning to do similar work at the site of the USS Housatonic, the sloop sunk off
the Isle of Palms by the Confederate submarine Hunley.
Harris said the sub bottom profile uses an acoustic ping to measure the solidity of the sands and
what lies under them, and it ultimately can create a 3-D image of the wreck.
“It’s not going to be like you see on TV, where you see a perfect 3-D ship,” he said. “That’s not
going to happen.”
It remains to be seen how much public interest will emerge to encourage the state to do more at the
possible Planter site.
“If there was a big push or something … perhaps we could do something,” Spirek said, “but right
now, we don’t have the state funding or financial wherewithal to commit to a project of that nature
at this point.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.