Florida Keys 2007 Maritime Archaeological Field School

 In The

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

On the

Civil War Union Steamer, the Arkansas, later renamed the Tonawanda.

Date to be confirmed - Advance Notice

Field School Overview:

This is a unique opportunity to join ADMAT USA’s maritime archaeological field school in the Florida Keys in America. ADMAT is working under NOAA permit to conduct a maritime archaeological non-intrusive survey in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.  The Survey/Inventory Permit # FKNMS-2006-071 under the National Marine Sanctuaries ACT together with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act, authorises ADMAT to investigate the remains of a number of historic shipwrecks. This field school will investigate the Civil War Union Steamer, the Arkansas, later renamed the Tonawanda.

In March 2006, a recce prelim survey by ADMAT was undertaken, revealing the remains of a wooden structure with metal supports located near the wreck of the City of Washington in the Sanctuary at Elbow Reef in 25 feet of water. According to NOAA, these remains have not yet been previously surveyed, and the site is unmarked.  The priority of the project is to determine if these remains are truly the Tonawanda, and also to determine the wrecking process.  The observation of  structural damage and the survey results may give clues as to what happened.

Above: The wreck site taken from the recce. Below the only image of the steamship Tonawanda. (Courtesy of The Peabody Museum of Salem, Salem, Massachusetts.

Brief History of the wreck:

Applications are invited from divers, students, archaeologists and volunteers (minimum age 18) wishing to participate in the project.

“HISTORIES & MYSTERIES - The Shipwrecks of Key Largo”  by Capt. Thomas A. Scott © 1994 (published by Best Publishing Company).

Tonawanda, CIVIL WAR WRECK (page 17-22):

On June 27, 1863, as Union and Confederate troops braced for battle in the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysberg, the United States Navy purchased a new steamship, the Tonawanda. In her brief three year career she served as both warship and merchantman. Although her history is chronicled in the records of the United States Navy and the Key West Admiralty Court, her image was very nearly lost in the passage of time. Despite extensive research efforts, no photograph of this vessel has been located. The only surviving image of the Tonawanda seems to be an old drawing located through the diligent efforts of researchers at the Peabody Museum of Salem.

The steamship Tonawanda was purchased for the Navy by Commodore C.K. Stribling. Her owners, S. and J.M. Flanagan of Philadelphia. Pennsylvania agreed to sell the much needed vessel for the sum of $98,000. The Tonawanda, had been built at Philadelphia by the William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company. Her wooden hull, 191 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 19 feet deep, displaced 752 tons. Her 40 inch by 2 foot, 6 inch vertical acting engine, coupled to a single screw, was capable of propelling the ship at up to 15 knots. The Tonawanda, was also equipped with sails, barkentine rigged. After being purchased by the Navy the steamer was moved to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for refitting was a warship. She was armed with four thirty-two-pound smoothbore cannons, and one twelve-pound rifled cannon. A twenty-pound rifle was later  added. On September 5, 1863 she was commissioned as the U.S.S. Arkansas, the first Navy vessel to carry the name of the twenty-fifth state.

The newly commissioned Arkansas and her eighty-eight man crew were assigned to the West Gulf Blockading  Squadron. Her first commander was Acting Lieutenant David Cate. In command of the squadron was Rear Admiral David Farragut who, less than one year later would “damn those torpedoes” in the Battle of  Mobile Bay, inadvertently helping to bring about the obsolescence of wooden warships like the Arkansas.

On June 23, 1864 command of the Arkansas was passed from Cate to Acting Ensign F.H. Beers. Less than one moth later Beers was replaced by Acting Volunteer Lieutenant John F. Harden. Harden, like Beers, was destined to command for only a short time, with David Cate, the Arkansas’ first commander, returning on August 30, 1964.

On September 27, 1864 the Arkansas, under Leiutenant Cate, proved her value as a warship. On this day, breaking from her primary duties as a transport and tug, the Arkansas captured the Confederate blockade running schooner Watchful. The Watchful, apparently not living up to her name, was captured in the Gulf of Mexico, eighteen miles from Ship Shoal Light. On may 4, 1865, nearly a month after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, David Cate, long-time commander of the Arkansas, died aboard his ship. Command was transferred to John Ross until May 21 when the ship docked at New Orleans. She was then placed under the command of Acting Volunteer Lieutenant N. Kirby, her last military commander. Kirby was ordered to take the Arkansas to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. On June 30, 1865, at Portsmouth, the U.S.S. Arkansas was decommissioned and offered for sale. A true bargain at only $40,100, she was sold, on July 20, to George S. Leach of Portsmouth., to George S. Leach of Portsmouth. She was promptly rechristened Tonawanda and placed in  coast service. She served as a merchant, the role for which she had originally been built, for less than one year.

In March 1866 the Philadelphia and Southern Mail Steamship Company was founded by a group of Philadelphia merchants. The company was funded with a beginning capital of $600,000 with the board of Directors having the option of requesting additional funds up to one and one-half million dollars. The purpose of this grand venture was to take advantage of the rapidly reviving economy of the nation.

In a pamphlet published by the company in 1866, it is stated that nine steamships, specially adapted for the carriage of both freight and passengers, would eventually run between Philadelphia and the major ports of the South. The line was claimed to be “of a character unsurpassed for speed, capacity and regularity”. The first two ships of this new steamship line were the Pioneer and the Tonawanda. Also included in this pamphlet was the drawing of the Tonawanda.

Researchers at the Peabody Museum of Salem, in Salem, Massachusetts, located a copy of a sailing notice for the Boston and Cuba Steamship Company which offered passage to Havana, Cuba on the Tonawanda. In this notice it is specified that the steamer would sail from Long Wharf, at Boston, at 3:00P.M. on February 15, 1866 under the command of John Berry. The Tonawanda was advertised as being “of the first class, with very superior accommodations.” She was said to offer unusual facilities for parties wishing to visit the island of Cuba. As fur ther proof of the quality and safety of the steamer it is specified that the Tonawanda would carry, in addition to fright and passengers, the United States Mail. The price for this great adventure was listed as $60 per person. It is not known if the Boston and Cuba Steamship Company was an affiliate of the Philadelphia and Southern Mail Steamship Company or if this notice represents a transfer of the Tonawanda to new owners.

On the morning of March 27, 1866 the Tonawanda, under the command of Capt. John Berry, had nearly completed a voyage from Boston and Newport, to Havana, Cuba with a cargo of  fish and potatos when she struck hard aground on Key Largo’s Elbow Reef. Although many sources list this wreck as occurring at the Grecian Shoals on March 28, Capt. Berry’s testimony before an Admiralty Court as well as that of the wreckers, intimately familiar with the local reefs, indicates that the information given here is accurate. Two days later, at about 9:00 A.M. on March 29, the grounded steamer was approached by the wrecking schooner Three Brothers, a twenty-nine ton vessel with a crew of nine, under the command of Capt. Lewis W. Pierce.

Capt. Berry of the Tonawanda, realizing the hopelessness of his ships’ situation, immediately accepted the wrecker’s offer of aid. Tonawanda was surrendered to the efforts of Capt. Pierce and the crew of the Three Brothers. This agreement installed Pierce as “wreck master”, in charge of all subsequent salvage efforts. Pierce’s first act upon boarding the water-filled steamer was to take depth soundings at various points around the ship.

Pierce quickly determined that the Tonawanda was firmly stuck upon the reef. Only six feet of water was sounded off her starboard side and seven feet of her port. Her bow was found to rest in fourteen feet with her stern in fifteen. Her once proud hull was determined to be “bilged”, open to the sea. She would never float again. Pierce and his crew began the removal of the Tonawanda’s cargo and materials.

The crew of the Three Brothers erected a derrick and began unloading cargo from the main hatch of the crippled steamer. As the day progressed the wrecking vessels Alabama and Rosalee arrived on the scene, and after negotiations with wreck master Pierce, were invited to assist. Soon  the three ships, now laden with barrels of fish from the hold of the Tonawanda , set sail for Key West. The next day the schooner Augusta bore away the remaining cargo from the main hold.

On Saturday, March 30, with all cargo having been removed from between the Tonawanda’s decks, the wreckers opened a hole in the aft section of the ship to provide easier access to the remaining cargo and to the ships machinery. Much of this material was loaded aboard the schooner Eliza Cathrine for transport to Key West.

The weather began to worsen. For four full days it was deemed too rough to work. Finally on April 3, an attempt was made to load the Augusta. Rough seas soon forced an end to this effort. The Three Brothers was able to load some materials but suffered the loss of one of her boats in the process. The next day, April 4, with a strong southeast wind blowing, all hands left the Tonawanda. The stench of rotting fish and potatoes was now becoming quite strong.

Five days later, on April 9, the remaining cargo and machinery was loaded aboard the Three Brothers, Augusta, and Eliza Catherine. At about 4:00 P.M. the wreckers set sail for Key West, leaving the abandoned Tonawanda to the mercy of the sea.

In a suit filed in key West Admiralty Court the salvors, led by wreck master Pierce, petitioned the court for 50 percent of the value of all saved materials stating that they had “labored faithfully, much of the time in severe weather, and had saved everything possible without regard to relative value.”

In his counter-claim Capt. Berry of the Tonawanda, while admitting that the wrecker’s claims were “substantially true,” stated that the wreckers had been assisted throughout the salvage by the officers and engineers of the wrecked steamer. He claimed that much of the value of the saved machinery was due to his crew’s skill in removing it from the vessel. He asked that the court award a “reasonable salvage fee” and return the remainder to the owners of the Tonawanda.

On May 3, 1866 the case was heard by Admiralty Court Judge Thomas J. Boynton. The Honorable Judge Boynton ruled that $13,927.52, a large portion of the value of materials sold or appraised, be split among the thirty wreckers who were parties to the original suit. Smaller portions were awarded to others. After various costs and fees were assessed, Capt. Berry and the owners of the Tonawanda were awarded the remaining $1614.25.

The Elbow Reef, off North Key Largo, is a graveyard of ships. At lest five wrecks lie here. It is, therefore, no great surprise that some confusion should occur in their identification.

On the eastern portion of the Elbow Reef, seaward of the light tower, lie the remains of a large iron hulled ship. This vessel, her identity lost in time, is known by some as “Mikes Wreck.” Others have long believed her to be the Tonawanda, although often spelling the name “Towanda.”. Careful examination of the records describing the Tonawanda immediately disprove this theory.

The wreck of the Tonawanda, her wooden hull long since devoured by Teredo Worms, lies north of the light tower, directly shoreward of the wreck the “City of Washington”. No mooring buoys mark her grave as the remains were deemed too fragile to support large numbers of visiting divers.

The remaining timbers of the Tonawanda, most often called “The Civil War Wreck,” still held together by their original bronze and copper pins and washers, provide testimony to the skills of her long dead builders. This small, often overlooked site is among the most picturesque of Key Largo’s many shipwrecks.

Although the identification of the “Civil War Wreck” as the Tonawanda has not yet been proven beyond all doubt, this theory is supported by a number of facts. Measurements taken at the site show the wreck to be approximately the same size as the Tonawanda. Age estimation, material and design provide additional evidence, as does position information derived from the Admiralty Court records describing her loss and salvage. A careful review of the records show no other ships known to have matched this general description to have been lost at the Elbow in that time period.

Noted Maritime Archaeologist R. Duncan Mathewson III agrees with this identification. After surveying the site he stated that “The ‘Civil War Wreck’ is almost certainly the Tonawanda.” Mathewson  , best known for his work on the Spanish treasure wreck Atocha, is currently studying several historically important wrecks in the Key Largo area.

The Tonawanda is an easy dive, considered by many to be most suitable for snorkeling. Her twenty-foot maximum depth places her within the range of even the most inexperienced diver. Because of the fragile nature of this site it is strongly recommended that only small groups of divers visit this area, and that all divers take extra care to strictly avoid any physical contact with the wreck.

Most local dive shops visit the Tonawanda only by special arrangement. Divers inquiring about this site are cautioned that many, if not most, local operators believe the iron wreck beneath buoy #5 to be the Tonawanda. One may end up exploring “Mikes’s Wreck” instead of the more interesting remains of the Tonawanda.

Boaters  wishing to visit the wreck of the Tonawanda should search for a dark area in the sand west of buoy #8. As there are no mooring buoys here boats must anchor with extreme care. Anchors should be carefully lowered well away from the wreck and only down-wind of the site. A single, carelessly set anchor could destroy this beautiful site.

As with all wrecks within the confines of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, the wreck of the Tonawanda is protected by federal law. As this site is a favourite among locals, divers should also be prepared to be closely watched, and perhaps even questioned, by dive boat crews as well as law enforcement personnel, when visiting this wreck.


Field School Objectives  & Methodology:   

The objective is to conduct a non-intrusive survey of the wreck site. The resulting analysis reports will be compared to records in the National Archives against ship records and construction plans, to conclusively identify the remains as the Tonawanda. The team will measure and record the remaining structure and archaeological training will be given on survey equipment, which may include ADMAT’s own Underwater Survey Diver course   Pt 1 & 2 (equal to NAS part 1&2), Proton Magnetometer Diver Course (both PADI SDC unique to ADMAT) and various relevant archaeological courses will also be run, weather and time permitting during the field school which will last a number of weeks. Students from prior ADMAT field schools, will have the opportunity to progress their training and complete ADMAT's Underwater Survey Diver course part 3.

This is a very active field school, with as much diving as we can do. All team members will be expected to muck in and take active part in all tasks. This is not a beach holiday. 



The field school is located in Key Largo in the Florida Keys, south of Miami. The team will be travelling from the accommodation to the boats, which are docked a few miles away. The plan below has a link to a web site where a more detailed street map can be found. This is illustrated below, with the location of the accommodation as a red dot and the boats a blue dot.

ADMAT USA's Maritime Archaeological Field School Project Equipment Sponsors & Contributors.

We are grateful to the following companies who are assisting with equipment sponsorship for this exciting project.



For Further Information on this great project, click on the headings below.

Project Background


Course Content & Fees

Accommodation.& Diving etc.

Information for Participants

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