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Fisherman’s find on Holden Beach linked to Civil War-era ship

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By Brian Slattery and Laura Lewis, Reporter

The Museum of Coastal Carolina has a new artifact to display for visitors thanks to a local man’s curiosity.

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Gary Mullen discovered two iron chain links that date back to the early 19th century.

Mullen’s Indiana Jones moment didn’t come from treasure hunting or metal detecting; he was just walking along Holden Beach in February when something caught his eye.

“I’ll see fishing lines coming out of the sand on the beach and pull the fishing line up and get the weights off the bottom. You can save a little money getting the weights,” he said. “I find quite many like that. And I was right there in the area where Rangers Street is.”

Rangers Street is named for the iron-side ship Ranger that sailed along the North Carolina coast in the 1860s.

On Jan. 11, 1864 while the Ranger was heading up the coast to Wilmington, the ship was spotted and chased by Union ships and was beached by her crew off Holden Beach one mile west of Lockwoods Folly Inlet, said Susan Silk, marketing coordinator for the Museum of Coastal Carolina.

The wreck of the Ranger has become a popular diving destination. Several well-preserved cases of rifles have been brought up from its hold, one of which is on display in the museum lobby, Silk said.

Mullen said he tried pulling out the fishing line, but it wouldn’t come free. He dug into the sand about a foot and a half down where he found the fishing line was wrapped around two links of an unusual looking chain covered with barnacles.

“I dug up the chain and put it in my truck,” he said. “I was curious about it because I’m a heavy equipment operator. I know quite a bit about chains and I knew this chain didn’t look like it does nowadays. I looked like it was forged, like melted down and forged.”

Mullen, a fisherman, said he first went to some of the shrimp boat crews to find out if anyone knew anything about the type of chain he found.

“They told me there was nothing to it. It was old dredge line chain,” he said.

While the shrimp boat crews told him to dump the old chain, Mullen decided to hang onto it, still believing there was more to its history.

“Yeah, I was going to throw it away. I’d asked a lot of people, a lot of the guys on the fishing boats (about it) and they told me it was nothing but dredge chain,” Mullen said.

“I don’t know a lot about dredge chain, but I knew the links on that chain didn’t look like they were welded like they do today. I rode around with it in my truck for two months, three months maybe.”

Mullen said he brought it by The Brunswick Beacon, where he was advised to have it checked out by the museum in Ocean Isle Beach.

But he first thought he would have to go to Wilmington to find some answers.

“I didn’t know there was a museum at Ocean Isle Beach. I was pretty excited that we have one right here,” Mullen said.

The museum staff researched the chain and determined that the links were part of a stud anchor chain dating back to ships of the early 1800s.

“While we cannot be certain that these chain links are from the blockade-runner Ranger, it is a possibility,” Silk said.

Mullen said the discovery was the first time in his life he found anything like it.

“I took a hunch and said I’m going to get this thing checked out,” he said.

After learning that his instincts were right and he had found a piece of history, Mullen decided to donate the chain links to the museum.

“The museum has a small collection of Civil War artifacts and is grateful to Mr. Mullen for donating the links,” Silk said.