Civil War-era shipwreck is a tomb for sailors and Tampa Bay's only underwater archaeological preserve

Pieces of the USS Narcissus shipwreck are scattered about 2 miles off the coast of Hillsborough County's Egmont Key. Considered a military grave and the property of the U.S. Navy, the sunken vessel is also one of Florida's 12 underwater archaeological preserves. The story behind its final voyage is worthy of its own sea shanty.

"Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

Despite being afloat for less than three years, the Narcissus saw a lot of action. The wooden-hulled tugboat was built in 1863 during the Civil War. The vessel was roughly 80 feet in length and averaged about 5 knots. The United States Navy commissioned the screw steamer as USS Narcissus at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1864.

A screw steamer or screw steamship refers to a steamboat powered by a steam engine, using one or more propellers (also known as screws).

In 1864 the Narcissus served during the Union victory at the Battle of Mobile Bay. If Union fleet commanded Rear Admiral David G. Farragut truly uttered those famous words attributed to him - "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" - the Narcissus was there as witness. (Back then, submerged mines and other explosives were called torpedoes.)

Though the Narcissus made it through the Battle of Mobile Bay unscathed, later that same year, the ship suffered a sinking blow from a torpedo. The boat was on patrol in Mobile Bay when it struck a mine during a storm. The resulting explosion caused a large hole in the hull and within 15 minutes the screw steamer sank.

Fortunately, all on board survived and the majority of ammunition and arms were saved from going down. Three weeks later, the ship was refloated and sent for repairs at what was then the Pensacola Navy Yard, now the Naval Air Station Pensacola.

Final destination: Egmont Key

With the war over, the Narcissus, along with many other ships, was no longer needed to blockade southern ports. In early 1866 the ship set sail from the Gulf of Mexico to New York where it was to be decommissioned and sold. The tugboat did not get very far.

On January 4, 1866, a storm swept through Tampa Bay. The Narcissus, traveling full speed, hit a sandbar off the northwest coast of Egmont Key. The ship's boiler exploded, causing the steamboat to break up and sink. The entire crew - 26 Navy sailors - were lost. Wreckage and the unidentified body of one crew member were found on the beaches of Egmont Key the following morning.

Underwater archaeological preserve

Over 160 years have passed since the Narcissus's final voyage. Though the boat's time on the water was short, its life below the surface continues. Debris from the steamship remains roughly 15 feet underwater and serve as a popular site for divers and snorkelers.

The shipwreck, consisting of several pieces, is now a haven for marine life. Divers can see corals, sponges, goliath groupers, as well as other animals that have taken up residence in the watery ruins.

In 2015, the USS Narcissus was dedicated as Florida's 12th underwater archaeological preserve by the Florida Department of State. When waters are clear, the boat's single-cylinder engine, four-bladed iron propeller, hull structure, and boiler fragments are visible to divers.

Photo caption: The Civil War-era shipwreck is a tomb for sailors and Tampa Bay's only underwater archaeological preserve.

Posted: 1/30/2024, 2:03:44 PM