Florida to Dedicate CW Wreck as Underwater Archaeological Preserve
Divers from the Florida Aquarium’s Friends of the USS Narcissus group examine the wreck of the Civil War tugboat. Via TampaPlanet.com.
Sometime in the next several months, perhaps as early as late fall, the the State of Florida will dedicate the wreck of U.S.S. Narcissus, sunk in 1866 of Egmont Key, near Tampa, as the state’s 12th underwater archaeological preserve. I spoke recently to Roger C. Smith, Florida’s State Underwater Archaeologist, who confirmed that plans for the site are coming together for the formal dedication of the site. In this case, the process has been a long one due to the numerous agencies involved. Because the site lies at the edge of a commercial waterway, the project required the approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Tampa Port Authority, and the U.S. Navy, that still holds title to the wreck. Smith explained that, like so many historic wrecks in shallow water, this one was first located by fishermen, and then by sport divers. A number of small artifacts were picked up by people exploring the site, including a few Confederate buttons. These led some to believe that the wreck was that of a blockade runner, but an exhaustive review of the historical record revealed none of those vessels wrecked in the area. They did, however, identify a U.S. Navy steam tug that went aground and suffered a boiler explosion at that location just after the war, U.S.S. Narcissus.
Narcissus was launched as the 82-foot-long screw steamer Mary Cook at East Albany, New York, in July 1863 and purchased by the U.S. Navy a few weeks later as U.S.S. Narcissus. She was assigned to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron and assisted with operations after the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. The following December, Narcissus was sunk in shallow water by a Confederate mine, without loss of life, and was subsequently raised and repaired. The 2011 proposal to turn the site into an archaeological preserve tells the rest of the story:
In October 1865, with the war concluded, Acting Rear Admiral Henry Knox Thatcher no longer needed the many vessels previously required for an active blockade of southern ports. Thatcher stated in a communication that USS Narcissus and other screw tugs were ready to be sent north for sale. On January 1, 1866, USS Narcissus and USS Althea, both screw tugs, began their journey along the eastern shores of the Gulf of Mexico on their way to New York to be decommissioned and sold. According to the deck logs of USS Althea, both Althea and Narcissus encountered a storm off the coast of Tampa on January 4, 1866. The commanders made the decision to anchor outside the port and wait out the storm. Althea headed northwest against the tide and the wind while Narcissus took a seemingly easier route to the west, feeling the brunt of the wind and tide on her starboard beam. It was during this final journey to avoid the shoals that Narcissus, traveling at full speed, ran aground on a sandbar. Althea also briefly grounded on a sandbar, but was able to power her engine to break free. At 6:15 pm, the crew of Althea noticed Coston signal flares coming from Narcissus. Althea returned the signal at 6:30 pm, but received no response. Thirty minutes later, Althea noted more signals from Narcissus, but could not understand them. Althea returned with a final signal, but again received no response from Narcissus. Just after 7 pm, Althea’s deck logs note that Narcissus’ boiler exploded as a result of grounding on a sandbar. The crew of Althea stood by in disbelief as Narcissus was seen to break up and sink into the water along with her entire crew. The next morning Althea anchored off Egmont Key and noticed the beaches strewn with wreckage from Narcissus along with the unidentified body of one of the firemen and the papers of Acting Ensign Bradbury and Mate J. L. Hall. Althea stayed in Tampa for two more days to look for survivors, and finding none continued her journey to New York. In 2006, the Florida Aquarium received a matching grant from the Florida Division of Historical Resources to conduct the Tampa Bay Historic Shipwreck Survey. The Florida Aquarium collaborated with South Eastern Archaeological Services and Tidewater Atlantic Research to conduct a Phase I survey of high probability areas based on archival and cartographic research. This project was conducted to create a database of the submerged cultural resources in the area and promote in situ conservation. In addition, any submerged sites listed in the Florida Master Site File that were located within the permit area were reevaluated to access their condition. USS Narcissus was one of the first sites visited for reevaluation. During previous investigations, the site of USS Narcissus was covered by sediments, with only a small portion of the engine visible. Upon arrival at the site in 2006, all of the steam machinery, propeller, propeller shaft, pillow block, boiler pieces, and a portion of the wooden hull were exposed. As a result, it was decided to conduct a non-intrusive archaeological investigation to record the site’s features with the assistance of Florida Aquarium’s volunteer divers to produce a site plan. Divers also took hundreds of digital images and high definition video. Archaeological evidence indicates that USS Narcissus met her demise in a boiler explosion. This is further supported by a letter written in 1889 to the Secretary of the Navy from the Late Acting Ensign William F. Kilgore. He states, upon arriving “where I had located the ‘Narcissus’ going on to the reefs…about one third of the hull [was there] bottom up and held there by her anchors.” Archaeological investigations support these observations. The boiler is completely destroyed and the hull forward of the machinery spaces, where the boiler would have been located, is absent.
Florida’s “Museums in the Sea” network of marine archaeological sites may be the best program of its type in the country. It’s great public outreach and education effort, to encourage divers and snorkelers to visit and learn more about our shared maritime past. Interpretive materials include both general brochures and guides to the wrecks themselves (see this example, for the 1715 Spanish plate ship, Urca de Lima), so that divers can actually go beyond underwater sight-seeing, to have a better understanding of the site and its significance.
Here’s a big lot of images on Flicker of divers working to document the Narcissus wreck site in 2006. It can be slow and not-very-glamorous work. They even dragged Gordon Watts, the acknowledged dean of 19th century marine steam powerplants, in on the action. It’s wet work like this that goes into generating site plans and reports like the proposal excerpted above. Designation of the site as an archaeological preserve is the culmination of many hundreds of hours of work, often done by volunteers, in recording the site, doing historical and archival research, and many other activities. It’s diligent work, but tremendously rewarding for the folks who do it, who are making a major time commitment to bring this aspect of maritime history of a larger audience.
Hats off to them all.