Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Shipwrecks of North Florida


People are often surprised to  hear there are shipwrecks resting peacefully on the bottoms of many  North Florida’s rivers. Though, in reality, only a few would  actually qualify as “ships” and most were not so much “wrecks”  as “aquatic disappointments.” But, semantics aside, the remains of ill-fated vessels can be seen in many of our local waterways. And, in their stories we often find an intriguing glimpse into a moment in that area’s past.

Ironically, the most recently discovered sunken vessels in local water are also  the oldest. During the severe drought of 2000, over 100 Indian dugout  canoes were found in the exposed muck in Newnan’s Lake. Their ages—determined by UF archaeologists to range from 500 to over 5000 years old—suggest these were sunk (or abandoned) individually over a long period rather than in a single, large-scale event. After being thoroughly studied and recorded, the canoes were consigned to the safest place possible for preservation—the same muck from which they came. When the rains finally returned, the lake filled and covered the canoes. It is there, nestled in the muck and covered by tannic water that the Newnans Lake canoes will remain until the next severe drought reveals them and offers another generation of Floridians a wonderful reminder that we are just the latest in a long line of people who have lived on this land and paddled these waters.

But if you’d rather not wait for the next drought to see an Indian dugout, you’re in luck. Resting on the bottom of one of the twenty headsprings of Silver River, the watchful paddler with a good map will spot a relatively intact dugout canoe beautifully situated on a patch of white sand. Although not exactly “in situ,” (this boat was brought from a site a few miles downstream) the crystal clear waters of this river afford a spectacular setting. In fact, the curious explorer with a good map (or, better yet, a good guide ;o) will find a virtual smorgasbord of boat wrecks in Silver River, whose stories span many centuries. A couple of hundred yards from the dugout, another spring holds the remains of two wooden boats. One appears to have been some sort of rowboat. The other was once thought to date back to the Spanish period of the 17th  or 18th centuries. But recent examination revealed clues that it might actually be one of the early glass-bottom boats.

 A prehistoric dugout canoe in Silver River  

A couple of bends in the river brings you to yet another boat—the remains of this one consisting of a large, metal hull. Unlike most of Florida’s aquatic disappointments, however, this one was never meant to float. It was placed here as a prop from the Jerry Lewis movie “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”

Four miles downstream, two more sets of decaying remains are reminders of  Silver River’s colorful steamboat era. On my tours, I often wait to allow customers to enjoy making their own “discovery,” that they are passing over the wooden ribs of an old boat hull. If they miss it, I’ll tell them to look down. Local lore claims these are from a nineteenth century stern-wheeler. Continuing downstream, a few more bends in the river brings us to another ill-fated steamer that apparently ended its career earlier than intended. The remains of this one are partially out of the water. Beams, metal fittings and hardware litter the forest floor.

Many  of the more interesting wrecks in North Florida’s waters date back to steamboat days. Even such unexpected places as Paynes Prairie, which was filled with water for nearly twenty years in the late 1800’s, saw steamboat traffic. When the prairie’s natural, underground drain unplugged, the lake dried and a number of small boats were stranded. Most famous among them was the steam yacht, Chacala, whose salvaged anchor sits alongside the main street into Micanopy. Her propeller is displayed in the Paynes Prairie State Park Visitors Center.

                      Remains of an early glass-bottomed boat in Silver River

Other  local lakes, including Orange and Lochloosa also saw steamboat activity. But it was on Lake Santa Fe that Alachua counties heftiest steamboats operated. With the completion of two canals in 1881, one connecting the railroad town of Waldo to Lake Alto and the other connecting Lake Alto to Santa Fe Lake, commercial steamboats were soon making regular runs to the small lakeside community of Melrose—now essentially a port town. Next to the dock on Melrose Bay, guests found lodging at Bay View, which still operates, off and on, as a bed and breakfast.

The  three best known steamers to operate on Lake Santa Fe were the F.S. Lewis, the Alert, and the City of Melrose. Of these, only the F.S. Lewis is known to have ended her days on Lake Santa Fe, burning in the Santa Fe canal in 1884. There’s no account of the final resting place for the City of Melrose, but the decaying remains of two large wooden hulls, one near Bayview’s dock, and the other in the pass out of Melrose Bay, definitely tweak the imagination. Alert was moved to the Suwannee where she eventually sunk. It is reported that part of her top side could be seen sticking out of the water for some time afterwards.

The  Suwannee River has been the final resting place for many boats over the centuries, including two of north Florida’s best known aquatic disappointments. The most impressive existing remains are those of The City of Hawkinsville, the largest steamer to ply the Suwannee. Her 141 ft. hull remains remarkably intact in the tannin stained waters near Old Town. She was the last commercial steam boat on the river, operating until May of 1922. Her last job was hauling materials for the rail bridge near Old Town. Her job complete, the grande damme of the Suwannee was moored along the river’s west bank, within sight of the bridge she had helped build, where she languished regally. Eventually, as her owner’s descendants squabbled over rightful ownership, the City of Hawkinsville quietly slipped under the water and settled on the sandy river bottom.

Today,  this submerged paddle-wheeler has the distinction of being one of only two official underwater archaeological sites in the State. But visiting this wreck is no typical day in the park. While the top of the boat is relatively shallow, viewing it can be challenging. Dark, tannin-stained water, fluctuating water levels and unpredictable currents make this a visit for advanced, open-water divers. Anyone interested in exploring the site should check with local dive shops or State officials for rules and regulations.

Another  way to see the City  of Hawkinsville is  from the same rail bridge she helped build. Now part of the Nature Coast Trail State Park, this bridge offers a lofty perch from which you can look downstream (south) and view the wreck, or, more specifically, the buoys marking the submerged boat’s starboard side (she’s facing upstream). While you won’t see the actual boat, it’s a great place to let your imagination run wild, conjuring images of the City of  Hawkinsville and other steamers sloshing their way up river over a century ago.

Forty  miles to the north, remains of another famous Suwannee steamer, the  Madison,  can be seen in the (usually) clear waters of Troy Spring. The Madison  was a much smaller boat than the Hawkinsville and her remains are less impressive. But what she lacks in physical stature, the little Madison  more than makes up for in colorful history.

Owned  and piloted by James Tucker, the Madison played an important role in the lives of settlers living along the entire length of the Suwannee, as far up as Branford, and sometimes beyond. During her heyday in the 1850’s, she ran two trips per month between Cedar Key and Branford, stopping at riverside communities along the way.

With  the onset of Civil War, the Madison’s  days of glory were  numbered. Tucker was ordered north with a group of local militia, so  to avoid having the boat captured by Union forces in his absence, he decided to sink her. When local townsfolk in Branford heard the news, they asked Tucker to allow one last shipment to be delivered. He agreed, asking that they sink the boat after the trip. True to their word, a group of men scuttled the Madison  in the mouth of Troy Springs. Today, visitors to Troy Spring State  Park often slipping on a mask and snorkel and swimming out to view  the wooden ribs of her hull, easily visible in the shallow water near the mouth of the spring run.

                   Waccasassa River slowly claims a wayward shrimp boat

With advances in both boat  construction and boat retrieval equipment over the past century,  there are relatively few post–steamboat era wrecks in North  Florida’s inland waterways. Those we do see are relatively small and uninteresting and their stories usually involve nothing more colorful than a sad fishermen who misjudged the weather, the river or their boats seaworthiness. Examples of these more recent aquatic disappointments can be seen in the Ocklawaha and the Waccasassa, where sits the decaying remains of a commercial shrimp boat that floundered here nearly a decade ago—probably the victim of a tropical storm out of the Gulf. And, while these modern wrecks don’t have the colorful stories of older ones, they do offer a lesson. In spite of our finest advances in technology, the Big Girl always has the final say. Given the chance, she can lay claim to even the most impressive of modern human contrivances.