Sunday, June 10, 2007

 

Divers Explore Civil War Ship's Watery Grave

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TBO.com
By Steve Kornacki
June 10, 2007

John W. 'Billy' Morris, an underwater archaeologist
from St. Augustine, inspects the engine drive shaft
from the wreckage of the U.S.S. Narcissus in
the Gulf of Mexico near Egmont Key on Wednesday.
Photo courtesy of the Florida Aquarium


EGMONT KEY - There is little sign of the horror U.S. Navy crewmembers experienced offshore of this island on Jan. 3, 1866, when the Union Civil War tugboat the USS Narcissus ran into a shoal during a storm and exploded.

All 29 perished and were never found. However, the remains of the 115-ton tug are nestled above and beneath the ever-churning sands northwest of Egmont Key.

The vessel's shattered steam engine boiler - which burst like a bomb when the cold Gulf waters hit it - is about three miles from shore, along with its A-frame engine, drive shaft, huge propeller, double walls and other parts now covered by barnacles, sponges, algae and worms.

The tugboat graveyard, home to feeding saltwater fish for the past 141 years, now has frequent visitors wearing dive tanks, masks and wet suits. Divers from The Florida Aquarium have been studying it since last summer when the downtown Tampa aquarium received grant money from the state's Bureau of Historic Preservation.

Mike Terrell, the aquarium's dive training coordinator, is supervising the project along with contracted St. Augustine archaeologist John W. "Billy" Morris. Terrell says The Florida Aquarium plans to replicate the wreckage for display in its 93,000-gallon Shark Bay exhibit. They also hope to have it declared an underwater archaeological preserve by the state.

"There is so little Civil War history in this state," Terrell said, "and now everyone will be able to see some of it without getting wet."

For now, the privilege of perusing the boat is only for the aquarium's staff and volunteer divers. On Wednesday, a group of six ventured out to check its wreckage and another sunken vessel within a mile of it.

As the 25-foot Miss Bee Gee research boat motored past Egmont Key, Morris squinted into the rushing wind and raised his voice, saying, "Egmont looked just like that when the Narcissus went down, only the waters were much rougher. The lighthouse was there, but the light was turned out."

Confederates had turned off the lighthouse's beacon to prevent its use by Union blockade purposes. Had the light provided better guidance into Tampa Bay, would the Narcissus have missed the shoal? We'll never know.

'Damn The Torpedoes!'
The 82-foot tug, named the Mary Cook until commissioned by the Navy, took part in the Battle of Mobile Bay, where Union Adm. David Farragut exclaimed, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"

The Narcissus survived that naval operation and a blockade of New Orleans, but was sunk by a Confederate torpedo - the term then for exploding mines - in Mobile Bay on Dec. 7, 1864. It went down in 15 minutes but no lives were lost. The Narcissus was raised and taken to Pensacola for repairs. It finished out the war there before departing to New York on New Year's Day 1866 for decommissioning.

Two days later, the tug exploded in one of the worst U.S. Navy disasters up to that point. Morris, who specializes in underwater ship archaeology, said he was part of a Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research crew that discovered the Narcissus in 1992. When he returned last August, Morris was surprised to find how much more of the remains had become exposed.

"The hurricanes from a couple years ago had something to do with it," Morris said, "but it was left more exposed mostly by the recent dredgings in the area. That all moved away 10 feet of sand.

"I'm fascinated by how intact the engine is. The details of it are spectacular. It was an inverted single-cylinder engine, and it fell over the port side upon the explosion. When we found this much of it preserved, I suggested we replicate it."

Photographs and precise measurements have been taken to assure the fiberglass version of the Narcissus is just like the actual wreckage.

An Accurate Depiction
The undisturbed pieces of the tug were mapped by staff divers and 10 trained volunteers who averaged 11 dives each. Morris said the remains belong to the Navy, and no excavating is allowed.

"When you are down there, you are focused on the task at hand," Morris said. "But on the way back in the boat, it hits you what you've just seen and touched."

Morris has been to the wreckage more than 50 times. He became hooked on underwater archaeology as a teenager in Wilmington, N.C., when the USS Monitor, the storied Civil War ironclad, was discovered in 1973.

"I fell in love with it and have done lots of Civil War naval archaeology," he said.

"Billy knows so much about ship construction that it's crazy," Terrell said.

Each of the dozens of dives to the Narcissus led by Morris followed the same procedures and disciplines.

After ship captain and aquarium staff diver supervisor Jason Minnear dropped anchor at the global positioning system coordinates for the Narcissus, Morris did a back roll off the research boat and dived to locate it before calling for the rest.

Other divers, each with a predetermined role in that day's plotting, took to the water with tape measures, level lines, plumb bobs, compasses, pencils and a slate covered with a special plastic paper to record details.

"These are field trips that people pay to go out on with National Geographic," said Dan Rosenthal of Tampa, a trained aquarium diving volunteer. "This is the kind of thing you read about in magazines."

Their efforts eventually will bring the Narcissus to the public with the aquarium exhibit, which Terrell says should be realized by late 2008 or in 2009. He also hopes that the site becomes the 14th shipwreck site recognized by the state as an underwater archaeological preserve.

Terrell said, "It's not skeletons hanging on the ship's wheel, the vision of shipwrecks for most people. But you go down there or see photos of the ship, and you can be told a very dramatic, very engaging story."


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