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Sunken Civil War-era tug near Egmont key now an archaeological preserve

A Florida Aquarium diver takes video Thursday of a newly placed monument to the USS Narcissus, which will be the 12th Florida underwater archaeological preserve. 
A Florida Aquarium diver takes video Thursday of a newly placed monument to the USS Narcissus, which will be the 12th Florida underwater archaeological preserve. 
Published Jan. 16, 2015

EGMONT KEY — Casey Coy needed the weather to hold until noon.

"Wind and rain won't make the job any easier," said Coy, director of diver operations for the Florida Aquarium. "If the seas hold, we can drop the monument and be back at the boat ramp by noon."

Coy, a veteran underwater explorer, knows how unpredictable the Gulf of Mexico can be, especially during the winter months. It was on a cold January day in 1866, not unlike Thursday, when an 82-foot tugboat called the USS Narcissus ran into rough water at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

The shifting sandbars on both sides of the Egmont shipping channel are notorious hazards and the Narcissus and her sister ship, the USS Althea, brushed bottom as they headed out to sea.

The Althea managed to break free, but the Narcissus foundered, causing her boiler to explode and sending all 26 men aboard to a watery grave.

For decades, local boaters and anglers have passed over the shallow wreck, which gets covered up with sand and then exposed again with each major storm. Few have heard of the Civil War-era tug and, fewer still, know her story.

But that will soon change. On Thursday, divers from the Florida Aquarium and Southeastern Archaeological Services helped the U.S. Coast Guard place a reef ball monument in 15 feet of water off Egmont Key establishing the USS Narcissus as Florida's 12th underwater archaeological preserve.

"We have to be careful that monument is placed far enough away from the wreck," explained Nicole Tumbleson Morris, an archaeologist on the project.

Morris has spent nearly a decade researching the Narcissus, and Thursday's deployment was one of the final steps in a long, arduous process. A formal ceremony, scheduled for Tuesday, will be attended by descendants of the Narcissus crew.

The wreck site lies about 2 miles off the northern end of Egmont Key. The area is well used, so during the warmer months, it will be popular with divers and perhaps even snorkelers. But, on Thursday, the water was cold — mid 60s — the current heavy and the visibility less than 5 feet.

The Narcissus saw action at the Battle of Mobile Bay on Aug. 5, 1864, where legend has it that Rear Adm. David G. Farragut yelled, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

Nobody knows for sure whether the admiral uttered those famous words, but historians do know that the Narcissus struck a torpedo or mine later that year and sank with no loss of life off Dog River Bar.

The wooden-hulled tug was refloated and towed for repairs to the Pensacola Naval Yard, where it remained through the rest of the war. In October 1865, the Department of the Navy decided that it no longer needed so many ships with the blockade of Southern ports over. On Jan. 1, 1866, the Narcissus and the Althea, both steam-powered screw tugs, began the long journey down the eastern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, headed to New York, where they would be decommissioned and sold.

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When a cold front rolled in on Jan. 4, the commanders decided to anchor outside the port and ride out the storm. The Althea headed northwest, into the storm, while the Narcissus opted for a seemingly easier route to the west, but ran full speed aground on a sandbar.

Despite the poor visibility Thursday, you could still see major features of the vessel, including a portion of the wooden hull, drive shaft, propeller and steam engine, now home to a 200-pound goliath grouper.

The monument deployment, despite the weather, went off without a hitch.

"Looks great … it really does," said Coy, moments after the concrete reef ball settled on the bottom. "You got to have a look."