Deep sea diving for Civil War historyby Mona Prufer
Weekdays, Rodney Thomason is the deputy chief in Coastal Carolina University’s Department of Public Safety, working alongside Chief David Roper to keep the campus safe and crime-free. On weekends, however, Thomason dons his wetsuit and air tank and dives into 80 feet of ocean water 18 miles off the coast of Cape Romain. His mission is simple: to uncover and salvage 150-year-old Civil War cannons from the wreck of The Philadelphia.
Thomason has been working with Rufus Perdue and Rick Skimmyhorn of Long Bay Salvage to bring up an arsenal of 26 cannons that was aboard The Philadelphia, a three-masted schooner that sank in February 1877 as it traveled from Charleston back to its namesake city. The overloaded ship went down in a storm with two dozen cannons and a load of railroad ties, but the crew rowed away in lifeboats.
The cannons are scattered on the ocean’s bottom like a bunch of pickup sticks, although the railroad ties form a perfect outline of the ship’s prow, says Thomason.
Skimmyhorn first discovered the wreck quite accidentally in 1997 while looking for a new fishing spot, which he found about 20 miles off Cape Romain where the fish were large and plentiful. He made note of the location, returning time after time to haul in more fish before he decided to dive and see what the fishy attraction was down there.
He brought in Perdue and Thomason, both salvage divers, and an archaeologist who confirmed that the wreck was indeed The Philadelphia. Since the wreck was found in international waters, the trio went to federal court to “arrest” the ship for salvage purposes. Thomason was appointed conservator of the wreck and had to prove that no one, including the government, had claims on the ship.
“We were able to prove through historical documents that the government had sold the cannons,” says Thomason. “So now we own the wreck and its cannons.”
Raising the cannons from the deep is a difficult and dangerous task even for the experienced salvage divers.
Huge air bags and a heavy steel lift bar are used to raise the guns from their embedded graves. Then they are towed to shore by boat, then they are placed and hauled by truck to Florence where Perdue has a special tank that removes encrusted salt from the cannons through electrolysis.
So far, the men have raised six of the 10-inch Columbiad cannons made in Richmond, Va. Though they sell them for $30,000 per cannon, there’s so much cost involved in the equipment and hours spent in the ocean that “it’s not a real lucrative thing,” says Thomason.
It is a dangerous task, prying the 14,000-pound cannons out of the silt, with sharks often hanging around the site. “Messing with those weights and those bags, that’s the scary part,” says Thomason. “The sharks will usually leave you alone.”
He started diving around 1991 when his daughter Brandi (a CCU alumna who majored in history) talked him into it. She went on to work as a boat captain for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the Coast Guard Reserve and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. He got into the salvage business in 1997 and formed Long Bay Salvage, a company that mostly brought up lost equipment and small commercial fishing boats. He sold out his interest in the company but continues to dive.
Thomason, who worked for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division before coming to Coastal Carolina University four years ago, plans to keep diving for the treasures the sea claims.
“Some divers are treasurer hunters, but we are mostly conservators of history,” he says.