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Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves: City of Hawkinsville

There are 12 Underwater Archaeological Preserves in Florida, scattered from the Panhandle to the Florida Keys. Today we visit the City of Hawkinsville.

If you’re looking for something different from the usual clear, warm-water dive and an eerie adventure, check out the wreck of the City of Hawkinsville. One of Florida’s 12 Underwater Archaeological Preserves, the wreck is the only one you’ll find in a river. Located in central Florida’s Suwannee River, this moss-covered wreck has a ghostly feel, only enhanced by dark, tannic waters. The river played an important role in the development of central Florida from the 17th century onward. More than 50 steamboats plied its waters between 1834 and the 1920s. Many of their remains still lay at the bottom of the river. One of those steamboats is the City of Hawkinsville.

The history of the City of Hawkinsville

Built in Georgia in 1896 by the Hawkinsville Deepwater Boat Lines, the City of Hawkinsville was a paddlewheel steamer. It began service by transporting travelers, cotton, and naval stores on the Ocmulgee River between Hawkinsville and Savannah, Georgia. In 1900, it was sold to Gulf Transportation of Tampa and sent to the Suwannee River to transport timber for the booming lumber industry. The stoutly-built vessel had two decks and a smokestack, as well as a large steam-driven wheel, which moved the vessel up and down river. Its flat bottom allowed it to travel far upriver, and it was also sturdy enough to traverse the coastal waters near Cedar Key. The steamer helped deliver supplies for the construction of the local rail system, as well as lumber for general construction. It also pushed cedar-laden barges up and down river, used for pencil production.

Suwannee steamers typically stopped at the Gulf of Mexico port of Cedar Key, where they docked alongside oceangoing vessels to exchange cargo. Double-decked boats like the City of Hawkinsville carried the cargo to smaller inland streams and rivers. The City of Hawkinsville was the largest and last steamer to travel the Suwannee. It was abandoned in 1922 in a section of the river near Old Town in Dixie County after it became impractical to operate steamboats. The rise of railroads made the ship obsolete because trains were faster, cheaper, and more reliable for moving goods. The City of Hawkinsville has remained in the river ever since, serving as a monument to the role of these vessels in the economic development along the Suwannee.

Diving the City of Hawkinsville

Today, the relatively intact 141-foot-long vessel lays near the river bank. It’s easily accessible at a depth of only three feet on the port side and up to 20 feet on the offshore starboard side. Its bow faces upriver, and it rests on a base of limestone boulders. Underwater residents consist of bass, crappie, bowfin and catfish. Challenge yourself to identify the various features of the wreck in low visibility, and make sure your flashlight has fresh batteries. Try to locate the bronze plaque that designates the wreck as the third Underwater Archaeological Preserve.

Follow the path of the City of Hawkinsville down river to its final resting place; imagine what it must have been like to be a passenger on a paddleboat in the early 1900s. The nearby Old Town railroad trestle, part of the Nature Coast State Trail, is wonderful for jogging or biking. It represents the rapid development that took place along the Suwannee River in the early 1900s.

Make it happen

This dive is not for those who are interested in clear water or perfect diving conditions, and the river current can be strong at times. Visibility can be as little as a few inches after rain, but it can also be as good as six feet. Diving is best when the river level is below four feet at the gauge at Wilcox Station. Call 800-604-2272, ext. 8009 for information about river levels. You can also find river levels here under Wilcox Station.

For more information about Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves, please visit the website or contact the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research. Please help ensure that future generations can enjoy these wrecks: remember to take only photos and leave only bubbles.

By guest author Melissa R. Price