Somewhere, in the silent, wind-swept dune of St. Joseph’s Peninsula, there is a grave.
Unmarked and forgotten, it is the resting-place of a drowned seaman. His ill-fated boat, caught in the August hurricane of 1898, had sunk from beneath him and left him fighting for his life in the dark mountainous waves of the Gulf. Finally, he drowned and the currents and waves cast his lifeless body onto the wave-torn beach of the Peninsula.
We don’t know how long he lay in the blazing August sun, but a group of fisherman, probably from St. Andrew or Apalachicola (St. Joe and Panama City hadn’t been born yet) eventually discovered his body. Not wanting a decomposing corpse on their hands, they carried him to the dunes and laid him to rest. Two of his other shipmates were never found and went to rest in Davy Jone’s locker.
The August storm began as a tropical low east of the Bahamas and then tracked over Florida from Jupiter to Tampa on the morning of Aug. 2. As it entered the Gulf that afternoon, it increased strength and headed towards Cape San Blas. (For the readers unfamiliar with maps and charts, Cape San Blas begins at Salinas Park and ends at the Stump Hole – then begins St. Joseph Peninsula).
The storm skirted along the Peninsula, then Crooked Island and eventually made landfall in St. Andrew Bay. Since the Panhandle was sparsely populated, it mainly “wrought havoc with several tug-boats, scows, dredges and fishing smacks; causing the loss of a dozen or more lives and property damage exceeding $100,000.”
One of those tugs is our wreck.
When I was a young fellow we didn’t have many wrecks to dive. They were alright, but the technology had not been invented to find them. There was no LORAN-C or GPS, so the only wrecks we could dive had to be in sight of land so we could use landmarks to find them. In those early days we only dived two wrecks out of St. Joe – Vanmar and Kaiser.
We were true sailors then. Once we passed St. Joseph’s Point we would set a compass course to our wreck. After we ran a certain distance we would line up water towers, pine trees, dunes and always the paper mill stack to find the wreck.
Vanmar we could usually see from the surface, and Kaiser always had spade fish on the surface. As I grew older I began to research and eventually write the histories of the local wrecks.
Open any tourist dive guide and you’ll always see the tug, Kaiser. There will be various dates for her sinking and sometimes she’s wood instead of iron. For years I tried to find the correct history of the sinking of the Kaiser. Problem was, no wreck of that name had ever sunk in the area. Somebody was wrong.
Finally, I found a reference: “William J. Keyser, tug. Foundered 15 to 20 miles off Point St. Joseph, Aug. 3, 1898.” The early wreck writers had used the wrong spelling and the same mistake kept being repeated. It was not the Kaiser, the emperor of Germany, but Keyser, William Judah of Pensacola. With its true identity established, I could research the newspapers of that period and tell its story.
The William J. Keyser was an iron-hulled tug built in 1882 at Philadelphia. It was named after a prominent Pensacola timber exporter whose roots went back to the Pennsylvania Dutch.
She was 92.4 feet long, 19.5 beam and displaced 97 tons. Keyser had left Pensacola towing the dredge, Herdon, bound for Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.
Hugging the coast, her captain, W.H. Allen, with a crew of 12, was caught unawares by the fast approaching storm. As the seas mounted and winds howled, Capt. Allen gave the order to cut loose the dredge. As the dredge drifted away the men began to fear for their lives as the eye of the storm passed over them. As written in the Book of Job: “He maketh the deep to boil like a pot; the sea He churns like perfume in a kettle.” And boil and churn it did.
All afternoon and evening the coal-fired tug kept her bow into the waves and battled the storm. Inevitably, as water entered her coal chutes, the boiler fires were extinguished. With no power, the pumps quit and the tug began to settle into the Gulf. At 1:30 in the morning she slipped beneath the waves, seven miles west of St. Joseph’s Point and for miles from Crooked Island, in 45 feet of green Gulf water. The dredge washed ashore near present-day Beacon Hill and was later refloated.
On Friday afternoon, Aug. 5, the fishing smack, Isabel, arrived in Pensacola with nine of the crew. They had been found on St. Joseph’s Spit on Wednesday morning. Those missing were: Capt. Allen; Henry Brown, cook; Walter Brown, ship’s boy; and an unnamed fireman. The ship’s boy’s job was to help the cook, serve the food, clear the table, and any other non-dangerous chores the captain or cook ordered. The fireman did the back-breaking task of feeding coal to the boiler. Chances are he was African-American since he is not named and performed one of the hardest jobs on the boat.
One of the most heartbreaking stories is that of Julia Brown, mother of Walter, the boy. Already a widow, the loss of a son was just about more than she could bear. The Pensacola Journal reported her home was “a scene of sadness and sorrow.” Then the unthinkable happened: a letter arrived from Apalachicola on Tuesday, Aug. 9. Walter was alive!
Walter told later that as the tug sank, the incoming water meeting the red-hot boiler caused it to explode, blowing off many of the outside doors. Walter swam for one of the doors and luckily it had a piece of rope attached.
He half-hitched his wrist as to stay with it; thus Walter escaped a watery grave. For 36 hours Walter fought the mountainous seas until he was spat out on the Peninsula late Thursday morning.
He struck out walking and soon met up with more shipwrecked souls from the schooner Vista G. out of St. Andrew. The Vista G. had been beached at Indian Pass and Capt. Gillis and Richard Brown of Parker began walking the beach towards St. Andrew where they encountered Walter. How Walter reached Apalach and eventually Pensacola was not mentioned.
In its classic 19th Century style, the Journal reporter continued: “O, how the mother-heart must be fluttering with excitement. How impatiently she will await the return of her noble boy that she may clasp him to her bosom and weep on his manly young breast. ‘Tis well that joy does not kill, or her poor heart, so torn with grief, would now burst with the great joy that has filled it. Let all Pensacola rejoice with his loving mother.”
In another column, the Journal related how two crewmen survived in the Keyer’s lifeboat and eventually ended up on the Peninsula. They drove a stake to secure the boat in case they needed to escape as they knew not where they were. Climbing a tall dune, they spotted other boats anchored in the bay licking their wounds. Waving a shirt, a boat came from the smack, Maud Spurling, and carried them to the tug, Nimrod, where they were fed and clothed.
In an underhanded move, the crew of the Maud Spurling rowed to the outer beach and claimed the Keyser’s lifeboat as a wrecker’s prize. They refused to surrender the lifeboat until they were paid $25. The Keyser’s crewmen were compelled to write a note on Keyser & Co. before they received their boat. In their statement to the Journal, they made a “grievance against the crew of the Maud Sperling, which, they feel, treated them in a very shabby manner.”
As the years passed, W.J. Keyser would be occasionally found by a fishing crew and give up thousands of pounds of snapper and grouper. Once the Aqualung was invented by Jacques Cousteau, the wreck was discovered by SCUBA divers, as it was always home to Jewfish. Until they were protected, dozens were taken, but they have now returned and now have a new name- Goliath Grouper.
Today, the W.J. Keyser gets hit pretty hard by fisherman and divers. Her big schools of snapper and grouper are just a memory. She rests on the Gulf floor, bow still pointed to the southeast into those long-ago breakers that sent her here to the bottom. Only her iron bow, boiler and engine remain. She is the second-oldest known wreck in this part of the Gulf, sinking 44 years before the now famous Vanmar.
For over forty years I have roamed and explored the majestic dunes of the Peninsula, and every time I’m over there my mind returns to those nameless hurricanes and to the storm-tossed survivors who ended up on its shores. I am also reminded of the countless unmarked graves of those who perished; Spanish explorers, pirates, seaman, passengers and fisherman.
If one believes in ghosts and apparitions, a full moon in October would be the perfect setting to search for the specters and spirits who wander the beaches and dunes in an endless search of being rescued by ships that never return.
(The grave in the dunes was retold by Capt. Dave Maddox from his grandfather and copies of the Pensacola Journal were supplied by Dean DeBolt.)