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USS Narcissus, Civil War shipwreck off Egmont Key, could become Florida's 12th underwater preserve

TAMPA — The Civil War tugboat was named for a mythological Greek youth mesmerized by his own reflection in a pool. But for 146 years, the USS Narcissus has lingered out of view, an underwater graveyard for the nearly two dozen Navy men who died when the ship sank during a storm.

This year, though, the 82-foot Narcissus could begin attracting more admirers.

State officials have proposed making the shipwreck site, 2 miles off the northern end of Egmont Key, Florida's 12th underwater archaeological preserve.

That designation would put the site, literally, on the underwater map. Divers and anglers could visit the wreckage, which sits in 15 feet of water. The state would promote the ship as a historic site, distributing brochures and putting up a bronze plaque.

"Think of it like a state park," said Mike Terrell of the Florida Aquarium, who is also heading up the Friends of the USS Narcissus group, which would be responsible for monitoring activity at the site.

The ship is owned by the U.S. Navy, which has signed off in support of the designation.

The Narcissus, which saw action at the Battle of Mobile Bay, was nominated for the preserve designation last year by the Florida Aquarium and South Eastern Archaeological Services. The wreckage has been mapped and photographed as part of the Tampa Bay Historical Shipwreck Survey.

Major features of the vessel are exposed, including the steam engine, drive shaft, propeller and a portion of the wooden hull.

The wreck site has become a refuge for marine life, including hard and soft coral, cobia and goliath grouper.

Terrell, who has dived at the site, said he gets the chills when he's so close to a piece of history altered only by Mother Nature, not by man.

"If I've got my hand on the propeller and engine, it's like, 'Wow, the last time this thing was a boat was almost 150 years ago,' " he said. "I feel very privileged to be part of it. One of the things that drives me up the wall about archaeology at times is that there's a lot of papers published, a lot of information gathered, but it never gets out to the public."

The Narcissus, a wooden-hulled steam tugboat, was built in 1863 in East Albany, N.Y. The Navy bought the ship, then called the Mary Cook, and commissioned it as USS Narcissus in 1864.

The ship was present during the Battle of Mobile Bay, when Union Adm. David G. Farragut uttered the famous words, "Damn the torpedos! Full speed ahead!"

After the war, the Narcissus had outlived its purpose helping blockade Southern ports.

On Jan. 1, 1866, the tugboat left Pensacola, bound for New York to be decommissioned and sold.

Three days later, the vessel ran into a storm off the Pinellas coast. Traveling at full speed, it hit a sandbar about 2 miles north of Egmont Key. The boiler exploded. The ship sank.

The wreckage had been mostly forgotten until the late 1990s when divers notified the state about it, said Terrell. But little investigation of the site occurred until about four years ago when the Florida Aquarium began getting state grants totaling $200,000 to do underwater exploration in the Tampa Bay area.

At the Narcissus site, divers started by measuring remains with folding rulers and pencils. Then the investigation got more sophisticated, including sonar sensing technology that created three-dimensional images of the wreckage.

"We've thrown everything at this," said Terrell.

Florida's underwater preserve program, which includes the Urca de Lima, a Spanish galleon off Fort Pierce, started in 1987. According to a state report, the 11 preserves are visited at least 424 times a year by dive charters.

Reach Jodie Tillman at jtillman @tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

Museums in the sea

The USS Narcissus was a Civil War-era tugboat that was lost in a storm off Egmont Key in 1866. State officials have proposed that the wreck site become Florida's 12th underwater archaeological preserve pending a period of further review, including a chance for the public to weigh in. Learn more at links.tampabay.com

USS Narcissus, Civil War shipwreck off Egmont Key, could become Florida's 12th underwater preserve 01/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 10:04pm]

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