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Mystery Surrounds Sunken Remains in Florida Spring

Willie Drye in Branford, Florida
for National Geographic News
February 15, 2007
 
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.

The river touches eight Florida counties as it meanders from its source in the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico (explore an interactive map of the Suwannee region).

Suwannee River steamers brought mail, supplies, and a few luxuries to backwoods residents during the 19th century.

"They didn't have cars, so they couldn't drive the 25 miles [40 kilometers] every week to Wal-Mart in Lake City like I do," said Amy Conyers, park ranger at Troy Springs State Park near Branford.

"They had to wait for these steamboats to come to landings. When they came to the landings, people were so happy because they could sell what they had been farming, they could trade for or buy supplies they needed."

(Related news: "Steamboat Wreck Sheds Light on Bygone Era" [November 18, 2002].)

Historical records show that the Madison was owned by James M. Tucker, who became a larger-than-life figure on the Suwannee and is credited with opening up river traffic to the popular tourist spot of White Springs.

When the U.S. Civil War began in 1861, the Union Navy imposed a blockade of southern ports that gradually eliminated steamboat traffic on southern coastal rivers.

By the fall of 1863, as the fighting got closer to the Suwannee region, Tucker decided to scuttle his ship to prevent it from falling into Navy hands.

According to legend, local residents asked him to let them first use the boat to haul one more load of corn.

Tucker agreed to the request, but told Davis, Caldwell, and Ward to scuttle the steamboat in Troy Springs after they'd made the trip. He then left Florida to take a company of Confederate infantry to Virginia.

Local Dive

Tucker likely intended to raise his steamboat after the war. But by the time the fighting ended in 1865, scavengers had removed much of the ship's machinery and planking.

"People needed bits and pieces of the boat for their livelihood," Conyers said. "So when Tucker got back, there wasn't much left."

Haiduven, the Miami archaeologist, does think that the boat in Troy Springs was deliberately sunk, because he found one of the plugs that had been removed from its hull.

Whether it's actually the Madison, though, remains to be seen.

So far state archaeologists have found and are working to identify the remains of at least ten steamboats in the Suwannee River, three of which are accessible to divers.

In addition to the ruins in Troy Springs, divers can visit the David Yulee near the Suwannee's mouth, as well as the well-preserved ruins of the City of Hawkinsville, the last steamboat to operate on the Suwannee.

Smith, Florida's state underwater archaeologist, said that the submerged steamboats "don't get visited too often."

But that could be changing. For example, visitors to Troy Springs State Park have increased dramatically, from 4,182 in 2004-05 to 10,740 in 2005-06.

"Historically, the Suwannee River has been a well-kept secret," said Ben Harris, park manager for the Florida Park Service. "The flip side of that is that everyone is [now] discovering the Suwannee River."

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