for National Geographic News
In the crystal-clear waters of a Florida spring, decades-old remains are defying identification, tantalizing experts who are trying to solve a Suwannee River mystery.
Local legend has it that the remains are all that's left of the steamboat Madison, a floating general store that chugged up and down the Suwannee in the mid-19th century.
On a sunny September afternoon in 1863, the story goes, E. J. Davis, Jonathan Caldwell, and Joab Ward steered the paddle-wheel steamboat out of the sluggish current of the Suwannee River and into the basin of Troy Springs.
To prevent the boat's capture by their enemies, the men removed plugs from the steamboat's flat bottom. Spring water gurgled into the ship's hold and slowly pulled the boat to the floor of the basin.
Today, when rainfall upriver hasn't pushed the dark waters of the Suwannee into the springs, the skeleton of a steamboat hull is clearly visible, like the bones of a long-dead marine creature.
But there's still some mystery about whether the sunken craft is really the Madison.
Miami-based archaeologist Richard Haiduven, who completed a close examination of the remains in 2003, said the ruins are 89 feet (27 meters) long. But the Madison was about 125 feet (38 meters) long.
But that doesn't prove that the boat is not the Madison, Haiduven said. A portion of the boat's stern may be missing, and that could explain why the ruins are shorter than expected.
In general, putting a positive identification on remains that have been submerged for decades isn't easy, said Roger Smith, state underwater archaeologist for Florida. The water gradually erases clues to the boat's identity.
"Over time, the wrecks will assimilate more into their environment," Smith said. "It's often difficult in this business to get a positive identification."
Scuttle the Ship
Historians know that a steamboat named the Madison was one of many that worked the Suwannee, a river made famous in 1851 by composer Stephen C. Foster's romanticized musical vision of the antebellum South.
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