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Florida’s Underwater Archeological Preserves: The USS Narcissus

There are 12 designated Underwater Archaeological Preserves in Florida, scattered from the far northwestern Panhandle down to the Florida Keys. Find out what makes these shipwrecks so special. 

The History of the USS Narcissus

Built in Upstate New York in 1863, the USS Narcissus has a brief but exciting history. The tug was one of hundreds of vessels taking part in the Anaconda Plan, the Union strategy to strangle Confederate commerce by blockade during the Civil War. Serving in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, Narcissus patrolled shallow waters, ferried messages between ships, and captured Confederate vessels.

It bombarded Ft. Powell as part of the Battle of Mobile Bay, a decisive Union victory where Admiral Farragut uttered the words, “Damn the torpedoes!” After the battle, Narcissus hit one of those Confederate torpedoes while paying out its anchor line and sank. The Navy refloated, repaired, and sent the vessel to the East Coast to take it out of service. Along with its consort, the tug USS Althea, it ran into a fierce storm outside Tampa Bay on January 4, 1866. After running aground on a sandbar, USS Narcissus’ boiler exploded, and it went down with all hands.

A few years ago Al and Nina LePage of Alberta, Canada, discovered a photo of the crew after buying a framed Victorian-era drawing and finding a curious photograph behind it. The image, depicting the officers of USS Narcissus, was taken in Pensacola. It is dated December 10, 1865, less than a month before it was lost off Egmont Key. J.M. Young, who was not on the official list of lost sailors, signed the photo.

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The USS Narcissus Today

Visitors to the Narcissus will see several recognizable features from the original tug. The direct-acting inverted steam engine rises four or five feet off the seabed. It’s home to sponges, hydroids, schooling fish, and the occasional Goliath grouper. The pillow block, a bearing that once supported the propeller shaft, sits near the engine. Standing proud off the seafloor, the stern assembly can give a patient diver a primer on ship construction, with its keel, deadwood, stern post, sheathing, shaft log, shaft and propeller. Hull structure is often visible underneath the stern assembly, including the outer hull planking and wooden pegs, called treenails, that once fastened the hull to the frames, or ribs, of the tug. Depending on sand cover, visitors can see other parts of Narcissus, such as boiler fragments left over from the explosion, and the cables from when its crew deployed anchors during the storm.

Nominated by the Florida Aquarium and South Eastern Archaeological Services, USS Narcissus is now one of Florida’s 12 Underwater Archaeological Preserves. The community has rallied around the preserve, with support from dive shops, local governments and an area dive club. Like all of Florida’s historic shipwrecks, USS Narcissus is protected by law. In addition, it remains the property of the U.S. Navy under the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2005. The site is not only an historic site, but a military grave. Please honor the men who lost their lives there by taking only photos and leaving only bubbles. The USS Narcissus is about 2.75 miles northeast of Egmont Key, in 15 feet of water. Divers can visit the site on local dive charter boats. To avoid damaging this historic site, please do not deploy an anchor.

By guest author Franklin H. Price, archaeologist with the Florida Department of State