One hundred forty-six years ago today, a violent storm lashed the Tampa Bay area, imperiling two U.S. Navy warships — tugboats with cannons — that had seen Civil War action in the Gulf of Mexico and were headed for peacetime duty after the war ended.
One survived the storm. The other, the USS Narcissus, which had participated in the Battle of Mobile Bay, been sunk and refloated, did not. It ran aground on a shoal northwest of Egmont Key and sank in 15 feet of water after its boiler exploded. No one survived.
A plan to designate the wreck site an archaeological preserve is nearing the end of a six-year process. The preserve will be marked, and divers will be allowed to view the wreckage. Visible are the steam engine, propeller shaft and propeller, the scattered remnants of the wood-hulled tugboat and the exploded boiler.
The site is poised to become the 12th such underwater preserve in Florida and the first in the Tampa Bay area, which has two wrecks of Confederate blockade runners in the Hillsborough River.
The USS Narcissus was built in Albany, N.Y., during the Civil War. It was commissioned as a Navy fighting vessel, armed with a 20-pound Parrott gun and a single smoothbore 12-pounder.
During the Battle of Mobile Bay, the Narcissus was present when Union Adm. David G. Farragut uttered the famous words, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."
In 1866, the Narcissus was taken out of combat service and ordered to cruise out of the Gulf and up the East Coast to be decommissioned and sold. She was destined to become a regular tugboat, ushering large vessels in and out of port, but the Narcissus never made it.
Taking part in the process to designate the preserve are the Florida Department of State, The Florida Aquarium and the Navy. It is the first time the Navy, which continues to claim ownership of the vessel, has granted permission to allow one of its ships to be recognized in this manner.
"Technically," said Mike Terrell, dive training coordinator at The Florida Aquarium, who along with two other archaeologists nominated the site for designation, "it's still a war grave because all of the men were on it when it sank.
"That the U.S. Navy was willing to give its approval was really, really cool," he said.
In return, the Navy has asked that the site be monitored and any change in the site condition be reported to the Naval History & Heritage Command and that a mooring system be installed to prevent anchor damage to the wreck.
Terrell said the designation may come this year. The Florida Department of State is taking public comments about the proposal; if there is no swell of complaints, the formal dedication of the Narcissus site could come within a few months.
A plaque will be made by the state, which also will pay the initial costs of printing educational materials, but after that, everything will be paid for by donations collected by the yet-to-be formed nonprofit group Friends of the Narcissus, Terrell said.
The state first noted the wreck in the 1990s, when most of the vessel was under sand. Terrell said he first dove at the site in 2006.
"A lot of scouring of sand occurred," he said. "And a lot was uncovered. In near-shore waters, a lot of sand moves around. A lot of sand. It's in the process of uncovering right now. When that happens, it exposes different elements of the wreck every couple of years."
The only complaints so far are from people who say the designation will bring thieves to the site who will steal parts of the vessel.
Terrell said that is unlikely.
"The world of archaeology has operated for many years under the misunderstanding that if we keep all archaeological sites secret, they will be protected," he said. "But in reality, people who are going to do damage to a site or steal from it already know where the site is."
He said giving the site to the public tends to result in self-policing by the divers and tourists.
Designation of the site also will boost the local tourist economy, particularly diving businesses, according to the state's proposal for the designation.
The state recently surveyed dive shop owners and customers and found that the preserves in Florida "are far more than archaeological curiosities."
"They are the focus of regular dive excursions, generating significant revenues for local dive shops," the proposal states. "Of the 11 preserves, most are being visited regularly. Dive shops take charters to some sites as often as twice a week or even more frequently at the height of the dive season."