MOUNT PLEASANT -- For decades, people talking about the abandoned concrete hull stranded here near the base of the Ravenel Bridge have called it the Archibald Butt.
And no one questioned the name after I wrote a column about this rather odd maritime ruin in this spot on Nov. 15, 2010.
At least not at first.
The column did prompt Town Councilman Craig Rhyne to suggest that the concrete hull deserved a historical marker somewhere along the shore, and that idea led the town's historical commission chair Victoria Musheff to begin research on what such a marker should say.
Musheff began by reading the 1929 News and Courier stories that tracked the month-long saga of raising the hull from the shoreline along downtown Charleston and hauling it across the Cooper River to its present resting place.
When Musheff read a June 22, 1929 story that referred to it as "the hull of the Col. J.E. Sawyer, an old government supply boat," she stopped in her tracks.
"I'm confident I'm not the first person who has read that in the modern era, but I'm sure I'm the first person to do the research," she says.
Musheff eventually would spend a year, off and on, tracking down the puzzle of the hull. She didn't rest until she obtained a copy of the Feb. 16, 1934, bill of sale in which the Butt was sold for $25 to the Miami Aquarium. According to the document, the Butt "now lies under water in Biscayne Bay, near Miami."
"I didn't set out to do this," Musheff says of her discovery.
The only question Musheff didn't pin down was how the names got juxtaposed in the first place.
A 1968 "Do You Know Your Charleston" piece in this newspaper cautioned that the Butt's history "is made up from conflicting tales and color legends (that) couldn't all be true," and it mentions the "General Sawyer" was sent to Miami while Butt remained here. That piece echoed a 1967 News and Courier story that also said the Sawyer went to Miami.
It's still unclear how the name got changed between the hull's raising and relocation in 1929 and those newspaper articles almost 60 years later.
Perhaps the Butt name stuck because he was a more interesting historical figure than Sawyer. An Augusta, Ga. native, Butt served as a top military aide to two U.S. presidents and died in the Titanic's sinking after heroically helping to rescue others.
Their namesake ships were two of nine concrete passenger vessels manufactured in New Bern, N.C. All nine were named for deceased members of the Army's quartermasters corps.
Both the Sawyer and Butt had equal tonnage, and both ended up in Charleston's waters for a time.
None of these vessels proved particularly useful. They can be considered a sort of an experiment in military technology that seemed promising enough at the time but didn't really pan out.
Musheff notes that the Oct. 18, 1919, dedication of the Col. J.E. Sawyer proved to be a harbinger of things to come. After champagne was crashed against its hull, the ship suddenly slipped from its cradle as two dozen men knocked out its supports. Six were swept into the water but managed to survive.
Musheff says her research also led to one bit of consolation for those who will miss calling the hull by its previous Butt incorrect name: The Col. J.E. Sawyer actually was the first of the nine ships launched.
"Maybe we don't have the Major Archibald Butt," she says, "but we do have America's first concrete passenger vessel."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or rbehre@post andcourier.com.
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