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Finding history beneath Charleston's murky surface

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By Nikki Gaskins
ngaskins@abcnews4.com

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) – From cemeteries to haunted buildings, from placards on dozens of buildings to the lore being retold from horse-drawn carriages, there's no question the Holy City is steeped in history.

But that history does not stop at Charleston's banks. The water surrounding the city is just as rich in ancient – and sometimes prehistoric – finds.

Beneath the murky waters of the Charleston harbor lies a plethora of buried history.

"That's the Patapsco right there," said Tom Robinson, pointing to a misshapen form on a sonar screen scanning the bottom of the harbor.

Between Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter and too far below to see clearly lies a Union warship that tried to attack the Holy City during the Civil War. The attack failed when it struck a mine.

"They lost about 54 men in the attempt, and the wreckage is in a very deep section in the main channel, about 75 feet deep," said Robinson. "It is a war grave and it's not dove often."

Robinson and his wife, Sally, are professional divers who live and dive for relics of the past.

"There's probably hundreds of shipwrecks in this area from the years past," he said. "There's a number of them strung across the channel here that were used to block ships during the Revolutionary War."

Out there, scattered along the bottom of the ocean, sits the Frederick W. Day, a wooden schooner built in 1901 and sank in 1914. And there's the Weehawken, sank in 1863, off the coast of Morris Island.

And a little farther out, about three miles off Fort Sumter, is the Keokuk. After taking a heavy shelling at the hands of the Confederates during the Civil War, the ironclad sank.

But shipwrecks are not the only things the husband and wife duo find on their many explorations along the coastal waterway.

"This is a mammoth molar," said Sally Robinson, pulling one found item after another out of a metal trunk. It's a sign that millions of years ago the prehistoric beasts roamed the Lowcountry.

She pulls out fossils once belonging to a 30-foot shark.

"The is the Carcharodon Megalodon," she said. "These are just 6-8 million years old, depending on what species you got."

The coastal waterways also serve as a magnet for buried treasure.

"The Cooper River tends to be a hot spot because you have lot of erosion, so what's happening is the water is eroding down to the fossil layer," she said.

On a recent dive, the Robinsons found pottery and silverware they believe date back to the early 1800s.

"The colonists that were here were not making their own china, so it was very en vogue to have your china imported from England," said Sally Robinson, handling a large fragment of a plate.

Centuries ago, Native American tribes once thrived throughout the Palmetto State. Today, a collection of arrowheads serve as a reminder of their presence.

"These are between about 500 to 1,500 years back," she said. "You can find them in the river, the harbor, all the rivers because the rivers were the highway of the day."

Glass bottles from centuries past line the bottom of the waterways in  and around Charleston.

"This is probably early 1800s, mid 1800s right in there," said Sally Robinson, examining a glass bottle pulled out of the city's murky depths. "Bottles are interesting too, because you can date them from how they were made."

While the Holy City is no stranger to its immense history on land, the Robinsons prove with every dive that its history underwater is just as vibrant -- you just have to be willing to search for it.

"The rivers and estuaries are loaded with fossils and bottles and cultural material that has just been tossed aside," said Tom Robinson. "It's very exciting to find things like that."


  • Nikki Gaskins

    Email: ngaskins@abcnews4.com
    Reporter Profile



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