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Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014

1860s shipwreck near Skyway to become preserve

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Published:   |   Updated: April 13, 2014 at 10:09 AM

TAMPA — An 1866 winter storm near Egmont Key did what fierce naval battles in the northern Gulf of Mexico and a torpedo in Mobile Bay could not: Send the USS Narcissus to its final resting place and a crew of more than two dozen to their deaths.

Now the Narcissus shipwreck — scattered across the sandy bottom in 15 feet of water a few miles from the Sunshine Skyway — is poised to become Florida’s 12th underwater archaeological preserve.

The designation is expected to make the wreck a destination for scuba divers and boost the tourist trade along Pinellas County beaches and in local dive shops.

But for Nicole Morris, an archaeological researcher who has been diving the site for seven years and who is a big part of the push for the designation, the wreck has a deeper meaning.

A 148-year-old photograph surfaced a few months ago showing part of the crew of the Narcissus. After seeing the photo and reading letters from the crew, Morris said, her dives at the site became more personal.

“It definitely provides a connection with the past,” she said. “It humanizes these people. You look at the old black-and-white photos and they look different and they dressed different. But they just lived in a different time. They are just like us.”

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Twenty-seven crew members died in the shipwreck, including William Wilkinson, an Englishman who was one of three fireman aboard the Narcissus.

Danny Redmond, a civilian working for the Navy in San Diego and Wilkinson’s great-great grandnephew, plans to make the trip to Egmont Key for the dedication.

“I’ve never been there,” he said. “Diving the site will be one of my highlights. I’m getting ready for that. I’m really excited about it.”

He began researching his genealogy in the 1990s and came across Wilkinson but never knew what happened to him.

Then he saw a photograph of a family cemetery plot in Lancashire County, England. The marker said Wilkinson died in 1866 while serving aboard the Narcissus in America.

Redmond has worked for the Navy for the past 26 years and is a senior master sergeant with the California Air National Guard.

He heard from Morris a few years ago while she was working on her master’s thesis on the Narcissus. The ship had vigorously enforced the Union blockade of Southern ports during the Civil War.

Morris, who has been diving the Narcissus site since 2006, is looking forward to diving with Redmond.

“After reading some of the documents written by the crew — and now we have these images — it really creates this connection with the past,” she said..

“You think of it as some kind of disaster, but it’s really a rebirth of life. This shipwreck site, yes it was a tragedy and we lost these men, but we now have this beautiful ecological environment that is home to juvenile fish of all kinds, corals and sponges and even goliath grouper.”

What makes the dive meaningful is knowing what happened there, she said, and putting faces to names on the ship’s muster roll.

“The names of men from Ohio, New York, England, and mostly Ireland filled the record with information about their previous lives,” Morris said. “There were draftsmen, waiters, carpenters, masons and laborers who were pressed into a different role once joining the service.

“The stories of these men who gave the ultimate sacrifice would have been lost in the pages of history were it not for the impetus provided by the discovery of their ship,” she said.

And that’s what makes each dive at the site more than just an underwater swim.

“It’s just a great dive,” she said. “Anytime you go diving and you know the story that go along with it, the dive is special.”

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The recent discovery of the portrait of six crew members is a story that takes place 3,000 miles away.

Al and Nina Lepage stopped at a yard sale near their Canadian home in Edmonton in September and spotted an old frame with a drawing of two women in a parlor.

“She liked it,” Al Lepage said. “She liked the frame and we bought it for $10.”

They took their purchase home and soon discovered the portrait concealed behind the drawing.

The photo shows six Narcissus sailors striking stoic poses in their uniforms, some seated with sabers on their laps.

“We didn’t know what it was,” Lepage said. “We knew it was American, not Canadian, just because of the way they were dressed. We knew it was very old.”

On the back of the photo was a letter a crew member wrote to his family dated Dec. 10, 1865, less than a month before the ship sank.

The photo was a Christmas present to the sailor’s mother, and the letter had a return address of the USS Narcissus, Pensacola, Fla.

Lepage researched the vessel and realized he had a significant artifact. There had been no photos of the crew to that point, only the commander, Isaac S. Bradbury.

Lepage made high-resolution copies and sent them to archaeologists with the Florida Division of Historical Resources’ Bureau of Archaeological Research.

“I knew I had something special,” Lepage said.

The original photo remains in a safe in his home, though one day, he would like to hand-deliver it to Florida archaeologists.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” he said. “I’ve never been to Florida.”

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The Narcissus, an 81-foot, 6-inch wooden tugboat built in Albany, N.Y., in 1863, was commissioned by the federal government for blockade duty in the Gulf a year later, serving under the command of Adm. David Farragut.

Its shallow draft allowed the ship to lurk around tributaries and inlets and watch for blockade runners.

Because of its ability to operate in shallow water, it was called a “bar tender,” Morris said.

The Narcissus seemed to be destined for final resting place elsewhere, such as in naval battles in and around New Orleans or after it was hit by a torpedo that sent her to the bottom of Mobile Bay on Dec. 7, 1864.

But that Southern port was not the ultimate grave for the Narcissus. The Navy raised the ship and towed it to Pensacola for repairs.

She finished out the Civil War in fine shape and, a year later, chugged along the coast of western Florida, bound for New York to be decommissioned and sold into civilian life.

Where cannon fire, torpedoes and wrath of Southern forces failed, a squall near Egmont Key succeeded.

The Narcissus ran aground in a storm and the boiler blew. The remains of the steam tug were strewn along the bottom just over two miles off the northern tip of Egmont Key.

Now, 148 years later, the lengthy process to declare the shipwreck an underwater archaeological preserve is nearing its end.

Morris has been ushering the process along and is a bit frustrated at how long it has taken.

“To be honest, we submitted the application in 2011, and we had no idea it would take this long,” she said.

She said the shipwreck technically still belongs to the U.S. Navy and that required an extra layer of permits.

“It’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

She hopes to hold the dedication no later than the beginning of next year. A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State said the only hold-up now is a single permit being reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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Traditionally, the location of shipwrecks was kept secret to keep people from tramping over delicate history and to guard against looters. But recently there’s been a reversal of thought, Morris said.

Shipwreck divers these days self-police the sites and little looting goes on, she said.

“We are changing in the way we approach the public,” she said. “We educate them and create stewards, like the Friends of the Narcissus group. They go out and dive the site and monitor it, keeping track of artifacts that are exposed. We don’t want people going out there taking stuff off the site.”

It’s a crime to disturb a submerged shipwreck site, and violators face a possible felony charge.

The public exposure of the Narcissus wreck, sharing the history of the ship and crew, Morris said, outweighs the risk of pilferage.

“By teaching people how to be stewards of our cultural and natural environments,” she said, “we can preserve these resources for generations and hopefully ignite a passion in adults and children alike.”

 

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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