Wreck Righted State recognizes Keystone diver's version of resting place

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Posted by on June 24, 2005 at 06:53:23:

By Al Krombach

When Bill Rivers discovered in 2003 that the wreck of the Civil War-era USS Columbine wasn't where Florida records said it was, he thought state officials would be grateful for the information.

Instead, the Keystone Heights diver spent a year and a half trying to convince the folks in Tallahassee that their historical documentation, called the Master Site File, was wrong and he was right.

The hulk of the Columbine, Rivers maintained, rests nearly a mile farther south along the St. Johns River than many would have us believe.

Earlier this month, Rivers said, the state finally came around. An official of the Department of State wrote to say they had accepted his findings and would change the Master Site File to reflect it.

"We didn't do this for ourselves," Rivers said. "We just took it upon ourselves to discover what the facts were. I believe we have done that."

The Columbine was a steam-powered, sidewheeler tugboat that the Union Navy converted for use as a gunboat. She and other craft patrolled the St. Johns River during the Civil War to interdict Confederate efforts to ship cattle and other supplies northward.

Union forces controlled most of the state east of the St. Johns. Palatka was more or less under bluecoat control, but Confederate cavalry led by the legendary J.J. Dickison prowled the western riverbank at will.

On May 23, 1864, Dickison laid an ambush for the Columbine. As the northbound steamer rounded a bend near Horse Landing, the Confederate sharpshooters and artillery opened fire. The Columbine ran aground and was soon captured by Dickison's cavalry, one of the few instances where a Navy craft was destroyed by land-based forces during the war.

Dickison's troops killed many of the boat's occupants and took prisoners, including surviving members of the boat's crew and soldiers of the 35th United States Colored Troops who had been aboard. The Confederates then burned the boat to the waterline along with the corpses of her dead, returning later to salvage her guns and other heavy equipment. What was left faded into Putnam County history.

While researching that history, Rivers came across reports of the boat's sinking and decided to check it out. With a magnetometer, a device that detects the presence of large masses underwater, he checked the St. Johns in the area where state records put the Columbine: adjacent to Rodeheaver Boys' Ranch and Horse Landing. He found nothing.

Rivers went back to the books. He discovered an 1864 chart that put Horse Landing on the east bank of the river and some distance south of its present west bank location. Taking that into account and studying a description of the battle written by Columbine's skipper, he came up with a probable location for the boat. He returned to the river to check it out.

"The magnetometer went off the scale," he said.

Rivers dove at the probable site of the wreck and discovered a tangle of planks and steel cable in the clouded water. Most of the remains, he says, are probably beneath layers of silt, and it's unlawful to disturb anything under that.

Rivers brought back a few artifacts from the surface including wood planks, iron rivets and a pane of glass.

"From the construction techniques, we can tell that the remains are definitely those of a boat of the mid-1800s," he said. "The historical record and the location tell us it's the Columbine."

When he determined to his satisfaction that the wreckage was the Columbine, Rivers said, he ended his exploration of the site.

"The boat is still the property of the U.S. Navy, so it's off-limits to everyone," he said.

Late in 2003, Rivers contacted the state's underwater archaeologist, Dr. Roger Smith, to tell him of his findings and to point out the contradictions in the state's records.

"He told me he had checked out the Rodeheaver site himself in 1995 and had found nothing there," Rivers said. He said he would return to examine the new site himself."

Rivers also questioned information in the Master Site File that stated the Columbine may have been salvaged later, damaged during construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal or during dredging of the channel.

The Master Site File also states "The remains … were rediscovered and identified by sport divers in 1971. Sport divers subsequently removed many artifacts. The site was severely impacted and few of the artifacts removed illegally are now in public museum collections. Most have long since disintegrated due to lack of conservation."

When Rivers asked Smith to verify that information, Smith referred him to a single article in a scuba diver magazine written years after the supposed 1971 discovery.

"When I asked him what, if any, artifacts are in museum collections and how he knew that ‘most have long since disintegrated' he did not have an answer," Rivers said.

Rivers said his relationship with Smith deteriorated and communication ceased. To his knowledge, he says, Smith has not returned to examine the wreckage site.

Earlier this year, Rivers went higher up the Tallahassee pecking order. Contacting the Department of State, he soon generated some action.

JuDee Pettijohn, Deputy Secretary of State for Cultural and Historical Programs, wrote Rivers to say that she had passed Rivers' information on to the Historical Resources Division, the Master Site File coordinator and the chief of the Bureau of Archaeological Research.

The Master Site File was updated to include Rivers' research.

"Location data for the USS Columbine matches the information which you sent in," Pettijohn wrote. "We appreciate your providing this to us and your concern for the accuracy of our information."

Since the boat still belongs to the Navy, Pettijohn said, it would take a formal request from the Naval Historical Center for state archaeologists to examine the site.

"A local historical or archaeological nonprofit organization could apply for state historic preservation grant assistance to conduct an archaeological survey of the portion of the St. Johns River where the USS Columbine is located," Pettijohn wrote.

Rivers said his efforts to legitimize the Columbine's final resting place are drawing to a close.

"I would still like to see two things done there," he said. "A state historic marker should be placed at or near the site to identify it. The marker at the boys' ranch is not an official state marker, and wrongly identifies the wreck site.

"I understand that the land adjacent to the Columbine site is part of the Caravelle Wildlife Management Area under the jurisdiction of the St. Johns River Water Management District. And it's mostly swamp, so public access could be a problem, but maybe it could be approached by boat.

"And judging from the historical record, the remains of as many as 10 soldiers and sailors could still be with the Columbine. The Navy should determine whether it is a military gravesite and, if so, should identify it as such."

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