OFF THE FLORIDA KEYS — About 18 feet underwater off Key Largo lies a mystery ship, one of hundreds in just these waters.
It’s cargo, name and destination are unknown. All that remains of the wreck are planks of timber, iron rods and some pieces of coal.
State underwater archaeologist Roger Smith and his team will spend about two weeks mapping the site that has become a bountiful coral reef. In time they will also try to piece together what ship this was, its voyage and whether it should be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.
The work is part of an ongoing effort to take an inventory of Florida’s shipwrecks and artifacts, which number around 300 just off Key Largo alone.
Named the “Marker 39” wreck for its location just two miles off the coast of Key Largo, the remains hold many clues that could help unlock its secrets. A buoy has marked the spot since 1863, which could help date the shipwreck because it could be when the ship ran aground that people realized the area was dangerous.
Iron fasteners held the wood together and from what is left, it looks like it was about 150 feet long. So far, archaeologists are hypothesizing it was a barge because of its long, flat deck. Smith predicts it dates back to the 19th century, when there was a bustling business of carrying cargo, including coal, lumber and manufactured goods, up and down Florida’s coast. It may have been a steam ship because of the iron rods and steam pipes that were found on it.
“The Keys is a trap for ships, always has been, always will be,” he said. “There is all of this maritime history in the Keys. All these shipwrecks represent episodes in that history.”
The wreck was found by two volunteers in the 1990s diving along the channel between the shore and the large coral reef that runs parallel to the Keys.
Experts say there are about 400 ship groundings a year, some due to captain inexperience, some to weather and changes in water depth.
Smith says that when he dives a wreck, he is always looking for manmade objects to tell the story. This wreck doesn’t have many left. He believes salvors of the 19th century may have beaten him to them. They were otherwise known as wreckers. Some were fishermen and they would wait for a ship to be distress, and then come out and get the goods for a share in the profit.
“The law was, if you were the first salvor to negotiate with the captain, you got to be the salvor,” he said.
There is a Florida Master Site File where all the state’s historic sites are given a number for inventory. This wreck will get one too. The group has created a photo mosaic of the site. They will also map out the wreck and shoot video for people who will never dive it.
They will then take the pieces of coal they have brought ashore to the Florida Geological Survey and also search in the archival records of admiralty courts to see if they can find out what ship this is. “Sometimes you never do find the name of a ship,” Smith said.
The ship itself is not very well-preserved. It’s exposed to the elements and not totally buried.
“Part of all this is detective work and making conclusions based on hard evidence,” he said. “You have to let the shipwreck tell its own story. Sometimes it’s tempting to hypothesize what a site might be.”
There are several references to ships going down in the area, said Brenda Altmeier, program support specialist at NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
She says she “can’t help but think of the people aboard ... just the fear and panic,” she said.
This project is a partnership between the Division of Historical Resources and the sanctuary.
“It’s merging two sciences. It’s biology merging with archaeology,” she said.