The famous, but anonymous wreck that lies 80 miles offshore in the gulf finally has a name: Gwalia.
ST. PETERSBURG - The only clues Michael Barnette had to go on were two brass letters - "I" and "L" - presumably from the mystery ship's nameplate.
"They were found by a local spearfisherman who had been one of the first people to dive the wreck back in 1981," the underwater explorer explained. "He had also noticed brass portholes and other artifacts which led me to believe that nobody had ever explored the site before."
The thought of identifying a "virgin" shipwreck started Barnette's adrenaline pumping.
"That's the ultimate," said Barnette, author of the recently released Shipwrecks of the Sunshine State. "Diving a well-known, no matter what the history, just doesn't thrill me. It is finding something that has not been positively identified, then doing the research and proving beyond any doubt the name of the ship, now that's what it's all about."
Barnette, a 32-year-old South Carolinian who lives in Tampa, is founder and director of the Association of Underwater Explorers, a coalition of scuba divers dedicated to the research, exploration, documentation and preservation of submerged cultural resources. A marine ecologist by training, Barnette works in the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's St. Petersburg office but spends most of his weekends on the road either researching or exploring the nation's shipwrecks.
"Most local scuba divers and fishermen had heard of the Middle Grounds wreck," Barnette said. "Lying in 130 feet of water, 80 miles offshore, it is fairly accessible to most people."
Barnette had heard several theories regarding the wreck - some said it was an old barge, others a freighter - but nobody offered any solid evidence as the vessel's true identity. That was until one day a colleague at work told him a story about a Civil War-era ship that disappeared during a December storm.A cargo of cotton
The 174-foot Heidelberg was built in a New York shipyard in 1852 and ran aground south of Miami in November 1859. The steamship was carrying 3,419 bales of cotton and 1,600 wooden casks or "staves" valued at $188,000 and was bound for New Orleans when it began taking on water.
The ship was subsequently towed to Key West, where the U.S. District Court determined salvage rights. In Key West, the ship was fitted with a steam pump and made ready so it could continue on to New Orleans where it would be refurbished and returned into service.
But on the night of Dec. 22, 1859, the Heidelberg encountered one of the vicious winter squalls for which the Gulf of Mexico is infamous.
"Many people think the Gulf of Mexico is like a big lake," Barnette said. "But the reality is that it can get pretty brutal out there. A 20-foot sea in the gulf is much more dangerous than a 20-foot sea in the Atlantic because the waves get much steeper and are much closer together."
The captain gave the order to abandon ship and the crew and passengers departed the foundering vessel in two lifeboats. Seventeen passengers, a crew member and a representative from the insurance company spent a long night on the open water before the mate, thinking he was further west, raised the sail and headed toward Cuba. Fortunately, a passing merchantman, the Maritana out of Genoa, Italy, sailed by and rescued the survivors. The captain and nine other crewmen aboard the second lifeboat were lost at sea.
"When I first heard that the letters "I' and "L' had been found on the wreck I thought that there was a good chance that it could be the Heidelberg," Barnette said. "It was the right location. It was a very good lead.
"I spend hours, sometimes days, poring over old microfilm. If I find something that may be of use at a later date, I make a note of it, even if it has nothing to do with the particular ship that I am researching. Over the years, I have developed my own data base."
Barnette suspected the Middle Grounds Wreck could be one of a half-dozen ships.
"You have to go into something like this with an open mind," he said. "But I must admit that I wanted it to be the Heidelberg. After all, it's just such a great story."
Barnette spent months waiting for a chance to dive the Middle Grounds Wreck, as trip after trip was canceled due to bad weather. Finally in May, he had his chance.
"Things didn't look right from the start," he said. "You could still see the engine and double boilers, but the wreck seemed a little small for the Heidelberg."
According to Barnette's research, the ship had three decks. There didn't seem to be enough debris to support a vessel of that size. The fantail of the Middle Grounds Wreck was clearly rounded; the Heidelberg's was definitely square. But most disturbing was the fact that the hull of the Middle Grounds Wreck was made of steel. The hull of the Heidelberg, records showed, was built of wood and sheathed in copper.
"I knew then that this wreck was probably not what we suspected it to be," he said. "We would have to go back and take some measurements to be certain what we were dealing with."The ship's bell
Shipwreck historians look for a single piece of incontrovertible evidence - such as a nameplate - to confirm or deny a ship's origin.
On Barnette's second visit, he measured the wreck's hull at 140 feet, 34 feet shorter than that of the Heidelberg. Dean Marshall, a fellow diver, found a pair of glass candlestick holders in the debris field. Then Barnette noticed a brass object sticking up out of the sand.
"My heart started to race when I realized that it was the ship's bell," he said. "That is the brass ring for wreck divers. Ships bells are usually inscribed with the name and date the ship is launched."
Barnette wiped away some growth but was disappointed to see that the bell was barren. There was no name or date, which did little to help determine the ship's identity.
But nearby, he also found a brass junction box that carried the name of the manufacturer, Russell & Stoll Co., New York. The Heidelberg was indeed built in New York, but the junction box also carried a patent date, 1902.
"It was obvious that the ship had electric lights, which were not available until the late 1870s on ocean-going vessels," Barnette said. "So that once and for all ruled out that the Middle Grounds Wreck could be the Heidelburg."
On the second dive of the day, Barnette and Marshall searched for more artifacts. Toward the end of the dive, Marshall discovered another intriguing piece of evidence.
"It was the letter "G,' Barnette said. "Now we had three letters of a possible name. It started me thinking."The Gwalia
During the course of researching the Heidelberg's sinking, Barnette came across the story of another ship that was lost in the same area during the deadly month of December.
The Gwalia, a 130-foot ocean-going tug, was built in Philadelphia in 1907. The ship left Mobile, Ala., on Dec. 2, 1925 with the barge Altamaha and a load of gravel destined for the Tampa Coal Company.
Two days later, the tug and barge ran into the same kind of winter storm that sank the Heidelberg in 1859. The tug, taking on water, cut loose the barge and the crew abandoned ship.
O.J. Hillberg, the tug's chief engineer, would later describe the desperate situation to the Morning News Review of Florence, S.C. On lowering the lifeboat "she struck the side of the sinking tug and battered a hole in the portside. Before we knew it, our lifeboat was beginning to fill with water. With a couple of pails we began bailing the water."
The men aboard the lifeboat tried to row to the nearby barge, but the winds were too great.
"They sighted the barge again the next day," Barnette said. "It took 13 hours of nonstop rowing to finally reach it. The men were so weak, they could barely stand up."
On Dec. 5, a passing steamer, the Tampa, found the drifting barge and offered assistance. But the captain refused any aid or provisions and asked just that the Tampa report the barge's position to officials at the Tampa Coal Company. A second vessel, the tug Jim Sid, spotted the Altamaha the next day, but the Sid had its own barge and couldn't tow two.
The Sid headed in, anchored its barge near land and then returned offshore to help rescue the Altamaha. But when it got there, the barge with 22 men on board was nowhere to be seen.
"Barge Still Adrift With Crew of Tug," was the headline in the Tampa Daily Times on Dec. 8. The next day the news was no better: "3-Day Search of Lost Barge Crew Failure."
But rescuers did not give up hope. A seaplane from St. Petersburg, six tugs and the U.S. Cutter-Cruiser Tallapoosa kept up the search on Dec. 10. Dense fog hampered their efforts.
"No Trace of 22 Men Off Coast," was the headline from the United Press. "The treacherous Gulf today still refused to yield any trace of the missing barge Altamaha."
Finally, on Dec. 14, the newspaper announced: "Rescued Barge Crew Brought In Port Here."
The men had survived eight days with little food or water when the Coast Guard cutter found the barge 130 miles due west of Tampa Bay.
The large portholes found near the bow of The Middle Grounds Wreck and smaller portholes toward the stern are typical of an early 20th century ocean-going tug, Barnette said.
Barnette also found a large brass H-bitt still attached to the bow.
"Tow bitts were mandatory on tugboats so they could secure the hawser lines from barges for towing," he said. "This also tells me that we have the right name."
Barnette said he knows scuba divers and anglers may still call the vessel the Middle Grounds Wreck. But gradually, as word spreads, the name Gwalia will catch on.
In the meantime, Barnette and the other members of the Association of Underwater Explorers will keep up the search for the Heidelberg and other lost ships.
"We know it is out there," he said. "It's just a matter of time until we find her."
To get a copy of Michael C. Barnette's Shipwrecks of the Sunshine State: Florida's Submerged History, check your local scuba shop. You can also go to http://uwex.us/shipwreckbook.htm or call the publisher at (727) 560-2554.