A century after the Leif Eriksson was lost to the sea, divers think they have solved a shipwreck mystery

It's a good place to dive, a sweet spot for spear-fishing and has long been one of the Lowcountry's more bizarre maritime mysteries.

For years, the skeletal frame of a ship that divers call the Anchor Wreck has sat anonymously in 100 feet of water off Bull's Bay, attracting fish and fishermen.

In an ocean filled with anonymous hulks, this one has always perplexed locals because there was never any mention of this 19th century ship's loss in Charleston papers, nary a name to be passed on from one generation to the next.

And there are few clues on the wreck itself.

"There's not much there — two large boilers and three anchors aft of the bow," says Rob Harding, a local diver. "Everybody knew it was there, but nobody knew what it was."

Until now.

It was an old newspaper story out of New York that caught Mike Barnett's eye. The Florida diver and marine biologist with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration was doing some research when he read about the wreck of a pedestrian Norwegian steamship that sank off "Cape Roman, Florida" a century ago. Back then, that's what a lot of people called Cape Romain.

Barnett, who had worked for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources 10 years ago, didn't remember any steamship wreck. And he knows wrecks. He has dived the treacherous wreck site of the Andrea Doria, the Cape

Hatteras depths of the USS Monitor site and has even visited Britannic, the Titanic's sister ship.

Then he thought of the Anchor Wreck. When Barnett lived here, talk was rampant that the wreck was an old steamer called the Edward Luckenbach. Even though that had turned out to be wrong, it hadn't stopped the talk.

But this story of an unlucky sea disaster in the midst of a horrible storm seemed to fit.

"There's not a lot of evidence on the wreck," Barnett said. "But the story started filling in the cracks."

Zero visibility

It was only five years into the 20th century and already this storm had been declared its worst. The entire nation was in the death grip of the Arctic, an onslaught of ice, snow and a cutting north wind that would last weeks.

No corner of the country was spared. New York Harbor was covered with ice floes. Missouri recorded temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. As far south as Chattanooga, Tenn., Atlanta and even Aiken, people were dying from the cold.

And in Charleston, the Feb. 4, 1905, edition of The Evening Post lamented the "Mantle of Ice Over the City."

That very day, about 30 miles northeast of the city, the 22 sailors of the Norwegian steamship Leif Eriksson trudged blindly through heavy seas, probably wondering why in the world they had left Cuba for this mess.

The storm had whipped the Atlantic into a frenzy, the wind so loud they could barely hear themselves talk, the fog so heavy they could scarcely see from one end of the 274-foot ship to the other.

The ship was carrying more than $250,000 worth of sugar from Matanzas, Cuba, bound for Philadelphia. Capt. R. Savard didn't realize his path was blocked. The Delaware River was filled with ice, completely cutting off the Pennsylvania port from the rest of the world.

But there was another reason the Lief Eriksson would not make its delivery: the steamship named City of Everett.

One of the Standard Oil fleet, the City of Everett was a whaleback steamship and a famous one at that. Built in 1894 — five years after the Leif Eriksson — the City of Everett was the first American steamship to pass through the Suez Canal and to circumnavigate the world. But for all its sleek lines, it really was not much more than an ancestor of the modern oil tanker.

As the Leif Eriksson sailed up the Eastern Seaboard that day, the City of Everett was steaming south out of New York, headed for Sabine Pass, Texas, to pick up a load of oil. The City's commander, Capt. Bunting, was eager to get south, perhaps find better weather in the Gulf.

Sailing blind was not Bunting's preferred way to travel, but he had little choice. He had the ship's "sirens bellowing and bells clanging furiously," he would later say.

But the Leif Eriksson could not hear any of that ruckus over the fierce, howling wind.

It happened without warning. The Leif Eriksson burst through the fog just moments before the City of Everett was on top of it.

Bunting didn't even have time to think about turning. The cigar-shaped bow of the City ripped into the Norwegian steamship, tearing its metal hull like so much cardboard, crew members would report.

The Eriksson's crewmen seemed nearly in a panic, Bunting noticed, scrambling to launch the ship's two lifeboats. In the confusion, one of the boats and two of the steamer's sailors were lost in the cold, gray water. Less than 10 minutes after the two ships hit, the Leif Eriksson had sunk.

The City of Everett was too badly damaged to continue on to Texas. But instead of making port in Charleston and delivering news of the accident, Bunting simply turned around and sailed for New York, carrying the 20 surviving sailors from the Leif Eriksson.

Five days later, as the City of Everett went into dry-dock for repairs, The New York Times reported the fate of the Leif Eriksson.

But the story never made it back to South Carolina because of the same storm that sank the Leif Eriksson and killed two men.

The day the story was reported in New York, Charleston's telegraph wires finally snapped under the weight of the ice on them. The Evening Post reported that the city was "Almost Cut off From the World."

No one in Charleston ever heard about the wreck.

A picture's worth

Barnett told Harding and Pete Manchee about the newspaper clipping he found, asked them if this could be it. Manchee found it an intriguing thought.

A Little River diver, Manchee probably has spent more time on the Anchor Wreck than anyone else. He has scoured the site for any clue to the ship's identity, but the best he'd come away with was a valve stamped Goteborg, a city in Norway.

By itself, Manchee knew the valve meant nothing — an American ship could have picked up the part while in Europe. But it gave him the idea to check with maritime museums in Norway, see if they had a picture of the Leif Eriksson.

Before long, he found somebody who did. And the picture answered a few more questions.

"Some things looked vaguely familiar," Manchee said. "The portholes had these shades that covered half the ports, and I recognized them in the picture."

A little more digging might have answered another question: Why are there three anchors at the wreck site? More research into the Leif Eriksson might have provided the answer.

Later newspaper stories said the Eriksson, which cost more than $200,000 in 1889, had been sold to a salvage company for $5. In a story published in the New York World, the salvagers had said the ship would be easy to raise.

But apparently they tried and couldn't do it. Perhaps they slipped their anchors the same way they cut their losses, and left the ship to rot.

Could this be the answer, after all these years?

"You're never completely sure, but I'd say we're 99 percent on this," Manchee said.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or bhicks@postandcourier.com.