Photograph of Estelle Randall (date unknown; Source: Mariners Museum PB2876 C176)

ECU Marine Archeologists to Scan River for Clues of Lost Ships

Almost 60 vessels have been lost in the Albemarle Sound off the coast of North Carolina with no evidence of their exact locations. Researchers from East Carolina University and the UNC Coastal Studies Institute will use side-scanning sonar this fall to find lost ships in North Carolina’s Bulls Bay and the Scuppernong River. The scans may provide answers to how and where some of the ships were lost to history.

Researchers and graduate students from ECU and UNC-CSI will be based in Columbia, NC, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during the month of September, deploying their equipment and searching for the mysteries buried beneath the surface of the Scuppernong River.

In June, the Pocosin Arts Center in Columbia brought locals together with ECU and UNC-CSI, hosting a meeting to begin conversations about how research could be applied locally for the benefit of residents.

Dr. Nathan Richards, ECU professor of history specializing in nautical archaeology, met with residents of Columbia to hear how the Scuppernong River plays a part in local culture.

Locals told stories of travel and adventure in the early 1900s when residents relied on boats from Elizabeth City to bring the mail and goods to trade for vegetables, fish and crabs. Travelling to Raleigh required a boat trip to Elizabeth City and taking a train to Norfolk.

Residents of the community will be engaged throughout the research project, providing river tours, hosting public forums and providing housing and food for students and faculty. Several community members suggested including the research findings in tourism materials and creating displays and a walking tour describing the history of the river and the region’s close connection to the Albemarle Sound.

This collaborative historical and archaeological project has already collected records and imagery pertaining to the Scuppernong River. In addition to the river surveys, faculty, staff and students will continue to research the area in other narrower topics, including waterway modification, the evolution of trade networks, and the fishing, lumber and naval store industries. All research will culminate in a public symposium in late 2011, and a publication in early 2012.

Early results from the research will be presented at a public forum on October 6, in conjunction with the Scuppernong River Festival. A booth will be open at the festival on October 8 to familiarize visitors about the research project and the organizations involved.

The Scuppernong River Heritage Trail

In an effort to expand the initial research in the area, researchers are collaborating on a grant application for the development of a digital media project that will guide the user through a cultural heritage trail on the Scuppernong River. If funded, the three-year project would focus on the development of the Scuppernong River Heritage Trail and related educational and tourism materials.

The Scuppernong River Heritage Trail would focus on the Scuppernong River Interpretive Boardwalk (a National Recreation Trail since 2005), which is a part of the Walter B. Jones Center for the Sound, and operated by the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and the Partnership for the Sounds.

According to Richards, Tyrrell County, with its two prominent rivers (the Scuppernong and Alligator Rivers), is a perfect location for a maritime heritage trail because of the extensive history in the area, the location of pre-existing infrastructure along the Scuppernong River and the existence of a nationally designated historic district in Columbia. Additionally, the town is situated along a major tourism corridor representing the shortest distance between Raleigh and popular beach attractions in the Outer Banks. Finally, the creation of such a maritime heritage trail has the potential to significantly enrich the local population culturally, historically and economically.

For additional information, contact Richards at 252-258-4264 or