Being surrounded on three sides by water, it is no wonder that Florida has had its fair share of shipwrecks. In all, twelve shipwreck sites have been named Underwater Archaeological Preserves by the state of Florida. Two local ones include the molasses barge Regina off of Bradenton Beach and U.S.S. Narcissus off of Egmont Key.
Narcissus was originally launched as Mary Cook in 1863. Shortly thereafter, the tugboat was bought by Union forces in February 1864 and renamed. Intended to reinforce its blockade, the North hoped Narcissus, and other ships like it, could help bring the war to a close. This task took her to the Mississippi River and she soon saw action at Mississippi Sound, New Orleans, Mobile Bay, and Pensacola. In December 1864, Narcissus struck a mine near Dog River Bar (near Mobile, Alabama) during a storm and sunk. Despite her quick descent below the waves (she sank in approximately fifteen minutes), none of the crew was lost and all arms and ammunition were recovered. Later that month, Narcissus was refloated and was sent to Pensacola for repairs where she remained until the end of the war.
After the war ended in 1865, Narcissus and another vessel, Althea, were ordered to return to New York in order to be sold. During this journey, the fate of Narcissus took a turn. From Althea’s ship’s log we know that both vessels ran across a terrible storm off of Tampa near the end of January 1866. During this storm, Althea noted several confusing distress signal flares coming from Narcissus. When they attempted to respond, they received no answer. According to Althea’s logs, Narcissus ran aground on a sandbar just north of Egmont Key while traveling at full speed. With the intrusion of cold water into the hot boiler, Narcissus’ boiler exploded. Shortly afterwards, the ship broke apart and sank.
This second sinking was not as lucky as the first. None of the crew survived. The crew of Althea anchored off of Egmont Key to wait, before long they noticed wreckage beginning to wash up on shore. After two more days of searching for survivors, Althea continued on her journey the North.
Superstition puts stress on the bad luck associated with renaming ships. According to some, the only way to undo such bad luck is to have the ship unnamed through a ceremony and have the ship rechristened under her new name. Although this may have been the case, it is not clear if this took place when Mary Cook became Narcissus. Perhaps Narcissus fell into the snares of this old superstition. Or maybe it was just a series of unfortunate events that ultimately lead to the vessel’s sinking. Either way, the wreckage site was named Florida’s twelfth Underwater Archaeological Preserve in 2014, thanks to the partnership between the Florida Aquarium and the U.S . Navy. Although Underwater Archaeological Preserves in state waters are open to divers, it is against state law to disturb or remove anything from these sites. After all, once these artifacts and sites are gone, we cannot get them back. As Florida’s Division of Historical Resources states on their website, “take only pictures and leave only bubbles!”
A model of Narcissus, made by William Daniels, is currently on display at the Florida Maritime Museum.