Thursday, December 15, 2005


Old shipwreck keeps area couple busy

By Karen Voyles
December 12, 2005

The USS Columbine.

Bill Rivers and his wife and diving partner, Sandi, spent six months in 2003 looking for the remains of a Civil War boat that went down on May 23, 1862 at a place known as Horse Landing.

Since finding the old wooden boat, the couple has continued to research what happened to the crew and they have added their information, including their map, to the wreck site, to the state's historic files.

"I know that people probably wonder why we would care about things that happened 140 year ago, but this is what keeps me sane," Bill Rivers said. "I'm retired and if I spent my time sitting at a computer playing games where you shoot at snowmen on skateboards, I would know there was something terribly wrong with my life.

"After finding the final resting place of the USS Columbine, the Riverses realized they had many more questions about the steam-powered side-wheeler and have continued researching the fates of the crew aboard the 117-foot-long, wooden boat.

"None of this probably would have happened if we had found the Columbine where the first state maps we got said it was," Bill Rivers said.

The Riverses started their quest relying on a map they found in state files maintained by the Division of Historical Resources Underwater Archaeological Program. Diving into the murky water, the Riverses had to feel their way around the river bottom but never came across anything remotely resembling a shipwreck.

Eventually, Bill Rivers began using an old-school investigative technique he learned in his years as a Clay County crime scene investigator - track down every possible source and see what matches up.

What matched up in the search for the Columbine were name changes of places along the river and hand-drawn maps as well as descriptions from crew members and war records. After the Riverses eventually found the boat, they found another map file maintained by the state, the Florida Master Site File.

The map that the Riverses drew up showing where they found the Columbine has been added to the master file earlier this year, according to Charles Branham, an archaeological data analyst for the Department of State.

"We did appreciate the information they (Bill and Sandi Rivers) sent and we have included it," Branham said.

The master file is a listing maintained by the state that almost anyone can add information to, according to state officials. The 151,000 cultural resources listed on the master file includes 121,000 buildings and 28,000 archaeological sites, including shipwrecks.

To initially have an item or site included, it must be at least 50 years old and the information must be submitted on a standardized form. Because the state does not have enough staff members to field check every submission, the quality of the submissions have to be evaluated by office-bound staff in Tallahassee and the quality of the contents of the file can be inconsistent.

"Now that we know all this, we want to look at some other shipwrecks," Bill Rivers said. "We also want the Navy to have the Columbine site declared a war grave because we think between 10 and 17 men went down with the ship based on the official Civil War records we found at Cornell (University).

"While pursuing the idea of having the Columbine declared a war grave, the couple is also deciding which of the four other shipwrecks believed to have happened in the St. Johns River to pursue or whether to begin looking for a pair of shipwrecks a mile or two out in the Atlantic.

"There is so much history around here that we need to find out about," Bill Rivers said. "That really is what motivates us."


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