A Perfect Preservation

The night was still and silent. Experienced river pilot—and freedman—Romeo Murray knew every curve of the St. Johns River. A former slave of Zephaniah Kingsley, Murray had been piloting riverboats for the Union Army since 1862. The dark waters lapped methodically against the steamboat’s hull as it journeyed northward from Palatka to Jacksonville in the early morning hours of April 1, 1864.

A deafening explosion reverberated through the darkness at 3:59 a.m., impacting the ship’s bow and dooming the 180-foot vessel to a watery grave. Only four men perished, yet far more than a chartered steamer was lost.

Twelve miles away, three thousand Union soldiers from the 112th New York, the 169th New York and the 13th Indiana awaited their baggage and camp equipage in Jacksonville. Shipped in from Folly Island, South Carolina, as reinforcements following the Union defeat at the Battle of Olustee, their wait would be eternal.

Within the Maple Leaf’s hull lay a pristine time capsule of personal effects preserved in anaerobic conditions under eight feet of mud and approximately 24 feet of water. April 1 marks the 155th anniversary of the sinking by Confederate mine (submarine torpedo) just off Mandarin Point. The world’s most significant collection of Civil War artifacts remains entombed beneath the murky St. Johns River, largely forgotten.

Jacksonville native Keith Holland had never heard of the Maple Leaf as a school boy—at least as far as he recalls. He admittedly hated studying history in school. Now a dentist, Holland’s passion for Jacksonville’s Civil War heritage happened quite accidentally. Saltwater diving with his brother-in-law off Myrtle Beach in the early 1980s inspired Holland to find and dive a shipwreck near Jacksonville. He began making an inventory of area shipwrecks and the name “Maple Leaf” came up time and again.

Research was cumbersome before the Age of Internet, so Holland—who was also busy growing his dental practice—hired National Archives researcher Connie Potter to help him. Years passed without tangible results. Finally, Potter happened upon a thick file in the archive’s judicial branch. It was dedicated to the Maple Leaf.

“What had happened was the Maple Leaf turned out to be a privately owned charter vessel for the United States government,” Holland told Folio Weekly. “When it sank, because of a war risk, the owners were supposed to get paid the appraised value of the ship. The government refused to pay them. The owners sued the United States government and, slowly, that case went all the way in the judicial branch. All the documents were pulled from the Department of the Army and the Department of the Navy. It was about an inch-and-a-half-thick file and included in that file was an eyewitness board investigation that was held the day after Maple Leaf sank. In that document, there was enough evidence for me to believe that the Maple Leaf still existed and she was fully loaded, capable of carrying 500 tons of cargo.”

He located an old map labeling a “hazard” off Mandarin Point, but Army Corps of Engineer records maintained that the Maple Leaf’s wreck and cargo had been removed by Roderick Ross in 1884. Holland was not convinced.

“I conjectured that he did not remove the cargo and the ship’s hull,” Holland explained, “that what he did was pull up any obstructions for navigation and that the hull would still be there.”

This also meant that what remained of the hull, if anything, would be buried underneath five to eight feet of mud, unrecoverable without serious underwater excavation. Legal proceedings commenced to determine ownership. After a long-fought battle, a compromise settlement was reached.

“We had to sue the United States of America and let me tell you, to go back and tell your wife and say, ‘Uh, we have just filed suit against the United States of America,’ that was pretty freaky for me,” Holland laughed. It took many years of legal negotiations to make his plan a reality.

Next, he had to pinpoint the wreck’s location. Before computer imaging, this required major ingenuity. Holland took the 1884 chart showing the river hazard and a high-altitude, infrared photograph of the area a century later. Creating two separate slide photographs, he merged the images together to create a modern picture on top of the 1884 map. Holland knew where to find the Maple Leaf.

In 1984, St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions Inc. (SJAEI) was born and Holland made his first trip to the wreck site. His brother-in-law was the first to dive, returning to the surface with exciting news: “I think we’ve got something here!” That ‘something’ was the axle of the 1851 steamship Maple Leaf, the only indication of what was beneath the mud.

“If you and I were to go down to the site now,” Holland said, “the only thing sticking above the mud is the axle to the paddle wheel. Everything above the mud line is destroyed and decayed. It’s gone.”

Diver Mike Dupes described the river’s eerie darkness: “It was pitch-black down there. The depth isn’t really the problem. When you get 15 feet down, it’s pitch-black. You have to do everything by memory—the recovery effort was done by feel. Even when we brought lights down, we could not see in front of us.”

What exactly awaited beneath the muck was a mystery.

“For most of the beginning, we didn’t really know whether it existed or not,” Holland recalled. “But there was a point where we cut a hole in the deck and one of the first items that came out was a small box. I’ve got a picture of my son, who was then 13, kneeling down looking at it on top of the deck planks. When we opened it up, it contained medical equipment. On top of it, it said ‘US Sanitary Commission—Washington DC.’ The U.S. Sanitary Commission was the precursor of the American Red Cross. Then we knew several things: It was truly a Civil War wreck, it was truly a perfect preservation, and it was a marvel what was going to come out of there.”

Over a 10-day period in 1989, divers recovered thousands of items: “primarily personal items like flutes, musical instruments, violins, seashells, rings, ambrotypes—glass-etched images often of mothers, wives or girlfriends—buttons, window panes, doorknobs, hinges, irons.” There was plenty of war booty stashed in her hull, too, confiscated from Charleston’s outlying plantation homes while the soldiers were stationed in Folly Island. According to Holland, “Over 6,500 artifacts were recovered, and that would account to 0.1 percent of what still remains—one-tenth of one percent. The charter agreement said that the Maple Leaf was able to carry 500 tons of earning displacement—not counting the engine or the ship. I know that the hull was fully loaded. So I just say 100 tons on the deck and 400 tons in the cargo area. Four hundred tons is 800,000 pounds.”

Diver Larry Tipping recalled the excitement of being part of the expedition, uncovering artifacts unseen in more than a century. “The stuff we were bringing up was in such pristine condition, it was a perfect time capsule—paper products, leather, cloth, even pieces of the New York Times the soldiers had used to pack their things,” he said. “It’s historically significant and the number of lives involved is incredible. The personal aspect is also significant—these are personal items we could trace back to their original owners.” To descendants of these soldiers especially, this collection is priceless.

SJAEI gave the collection to the Florida Division of Historical Resources in Tallahassee. Some of the artifacts are on display at MOSH, the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee, and the National Museum of the U.S. Army, Washington, D.C. The largest exhibit of Maple Leaf artifacts and informational displays can be found at Jacksonville’s Mandarin Museum & Historical Society.

Holland’s team lobbied hard and secured Duval County’s first National Historic Landmark designation in 1994. The Maple Leaf was the fourth shipwreck site to become a national historic landmark, behind the Monitor, also a Civil War vessel, and the USS Utah and Arizona, at Pearl Harbor, from World War II. That milestone would be Holland’s last hoorah for a while. In the mid-1990s, SJAEI carefully and methodically disbanded. The men went back to salvage their marriages, raise their children and grow their careers.

Sandy Arpen, president of the Board of Directors of the Mandarin Museum, approached Holland in 2013 about getting involved with the 150th anniversary of the shipwreck. He initially refused. Yet he attended the event and couldn’t help but appreciate the effort the museum—founded in part by one of the principals of the dive effort—put into keeping the Maple Leaf’s legacy alive. He’s grateful to Arpen for reigniting his passion for this project and has spent the last five years on an educational mission to make Maple Leaf’s story known.

Thirty years after their initial excavation, many of Holland’s original divers have died. Yet a handful live on; they meet once or twice a month at the Mandarin Museum to chat with visitors about the shipwreck and the recovery process. A video of the 1989 recovery effort plays above a display of shipwreck artifacts; the divers watch their younger selves clad in diving gear and basking in the delight of discovery. Each of these men spent more than 300 hours in the Maple Leaf’s hull. Their hair has long since grayed, but their dreams have not dimmed. They would love to return to the wreck, yet realize they cannot save Maple Leaf’s legacy alone. It’ll take vast public interest and action to dredge the Maple Leaf from her watery grave. The team is worried that Maple Leaf’s story—and her archaeological legacy—will perish with them. They are also concerned that the dive site may have already been compromised.

“We have a world-class, underwater archaeological site that contains 400 tons of American Civil War artifacts in near-perfect preservation and we are the custodians of it,” Dr. Holland said with great passion. “Nobody knows about it. I consider that repugnant. When [my divers and I] go away, the Maple Leaf goes away. It’ll sink back into oblivion. It’s still there. Please remember it, because one day somebody else, another generation is going to have to go back there once we’re all gone.”

There’s no marker proclaiming her exact resting place and, standing on the forested shores of Mandarin Point, one cannot fathom the depth of historical significance lying beneath the rippling waters. Will Jacksonville’s entombed treasure remain untouched and risk either natural or manmade destruction? Or will Jaxons wake up and own their history?