Divers survey wreckage of Civil War-era boat in Tampa
TAMPA - Amid the flotsam drifting lazily down the Hillsborough River just north of downtown are four bobbing floats that are indistinguishable from the rest of the garbage: two bright yellow squares, an empty Dasani water bottle and a white crab trap buoy. But those markers, tethered to the bottom at precise locations, are more than just garbage. They float above what is thought to be Tampa's most significant submerged historical find: the Scottish Chief. A Civil War-era wooden steamship that smuggled cotton and cattle hides to Cuba, the Scottish Chief also returned with ammunition and guns for Confederate troops and Cuban cigars and fine wine for a deprived city in the grips of a strangling Union blockade. The wreckage was found three weeks ago, and researchers and archaeological divers with The Florida Aquarium are just plain giddy about it.They have plunged into the murky Hillsborough River in the shadow of the Interstate 275 downtown bridge for three weeks, making exact measurements and plotting how the hull lies, mostly by feel. Visibility there, clouded by tannin and silt, is extremely poor. The wreckage is thought to be the second Confederate blockade runner discovered over the past three years in waters around Tampa Bay as part of an underwater mapping project conducted by the aquarium. Chief researcher John William Morris said the dimensions of the wreck are within inches of that of the Scottish Chief, and it's in a spot where the vessel was believed abandoned by Confederate troops after Tampa's one and only Civil War skirmish. He said three archaeologists and four maritime historians have been consulted and all conclude that this almost certainly is the Scottish Chief. "This is a fairly major find," said Morris, sitting in the back of a boat floating above the wreck this morning. "This is a major component in the history of this area." The 124-foot oak and pine steamer that was built in North Carolina in 1855 was towed downstream from where it was heavily damaged in a Yankee raid in 1863, where all the engine workings and anything else that was salvageable was taken. The hull was abandoned there, he said. It sank and that's where it sits today. "It's buried to the gunwales and the preservation factor is pretty high," he said. The muck mostly is anaerobic, meaning the hull may have withstood decomposition and be fully intact. Last year, divers mapped and surveyed the wreck of the Kate Dale, a blockade runner found in the Hillsborough River near Lowry Park. Much speculation surfaced about the location of the Scottish Chief. Both vessels were owned by James McKay, Tampa maritime pioneer and Confederate smuggler and the man for whom McKay Bay is named. Six times, McKay successfully ran the blockade of Tampa Bay, slipping by Union warships patrolling near Egmont Key. Stealth was a matter of life or death on those runs, according to an account of era in "The River of the Golden Ibis" by Gloria Jahoda, and McKay typically ordered his sailors on nighttime runs not to light cigars or pipes to avoid detection. But the Yankees learned of the runners and where they were docked and staged an attack on Oct. 17, 1863. Under the cover of darkness, Union gunships opened fire on Fort Brooke in downtown Tampa, but the shelling was just a diversion for about 100 troops to slip ashore and make their way north some six miles along the river's edge to what is now the Lowry Park area. There, they attacked and set fire to the Kate Dale, a schooner known for its speed. The wooden ship burned to the water line and sank on the spot. The Union soldiers were pursued to Ballast Point, where a skirmish ensued. Three Union soldiers and 12 Confederates were killed. Initially, reports said that both the Kate Dale and the Scottish Chief were burned at the dock, but the Scottish Chief, damaged in the attack, likely was towed by Confederates downriver to a spot across from what is now Blake High School, where it was stripped of anything useful and abandoned in about 15 feet of water. The third vessel moored near the Kate Dale near Lowry Park that night was the Noyes, a barge that was later moved by Confederate troops and set on fire to keep it from falling into the hands of the Yankees. The location of the Noyes wreck remains a mystery, although it is thought to be in the river between downtown and Lowry Park, possibly about 150 yards north of where the Scottish Chief lies. The fourth Civil War vessel sunk in Tampa Bay waters is a Union tugboat that was damaged by a mine in the August 1964 Battle of Mobile Bay and was en route to New York to be decommissioned when a combination of rough weather and shallow water planted it permanently on a shoal under 15 feet of water near Egmont Key. "While Tampa's role in the Civil War may have been minor," Morris said, "it was a colorful and fascinating time in the early development of Tampa's history. James McKay was certainly the father of Tampa's maritime industry, and his ships were the focal point of the skirmish at Ballast Point, Tampa's only battle of the Civil War." Archaeologists likely won't raise the Scottish Chief, even though it appears to be intact. Rather, they will survey and plot its position to recreate the wreckage in an exhibit. Some artifacts, if there, may be collected, but the collection of historical data is more important and less costly than trying to bring the hull to the surface, Morris said. "Recovering the vessel this significant and preserving it," he said, "would break the budget of most countries." Casey Coy, the aquarium's director of diving operations, has been scuttling around shipwrecks since 2005 and said this particular project "is really exciting." Before the discovery of the wreckage three weeks ago, researchers only had an idea of where it was, and during off hours Coy and other divers would drop into the water all along the river's shoreline between downtown and Lowry Park looking - well, more like feeling - around for the wreckage. "To find this," he said, "is extremely rewarding." "To get your hands on it and to know about how it was built and how it was sunk," he said, "it is a personal connection. I would love to raise it up and take a look at it. But the archaeologists say it is important to leave it where it is." In the past, locations of historically significant wrecks were kept secret, but now archaeologists say it's important to share finds with the public. Divers can go look at it, and if the public is aware of what's there they will help protect it, said aquarium dive training coordinator Mike Terrell. "It's amazing what happens when you get the public involved," he said. "People will watch out for it. They are appreciative of this being in their back yard."
Reporter Keith Morelli can be reached at (813) 259-7760.