By Herman Jones
No one knows where the Great Storm of 1856 was spawned. Chances are it sprang to life over the Bahamas around Aug. 25-26. On the 27th it entered the Straits of Florida and both Fort Dallas on Biscayne Bay and Key West reported strong winds and gales. For the next four days it would churn its way through the Gulf before making landfall on Crooked Island, west of Mexico Beach.
First it beat the devil out of Cape San Blas and destroyed the second lighthouse, which now lies about two-thirds of a mile offshore. Just five years before, another “Great Storm” had knocked down the first Cape San Blas lighthouse along with the ones on Cape St. George and Dog Island.
To the north, on the peninsula, the S.S. FLORIDA would become the second victim of the storm’s fury.
FLORIDA departed the Pensacola Navy Yard on Thursday morning, Aug. 28. As the steamer crossed the Pensacola Bar at 10 a.m. and entered the open Gulf, I’m sure the seasoned Master of FLORIDA felt a knot in his stomach. The long ground swells that crashed beneath FLORIDA’S bow meant only one thing--somewhere in the Gulf there was a hurricane. Hopefully, they could reach Apalachicola, their next scheduled stop the next day, and find safety in its protected bay.
Friday morning, as they drew near Cape San Blas, an ominous warning greeted them. The great shoal of the Cape was a seething, boiling cauldron of crashing breakers; it would be impossible to round the Cape and reach Apalachicola. The captain decided to put about and try to find a protected anchorage westward.
There was no one to notice the sleek side-wheeler as it rounded St. Joseph’s Point and entered the protection of St. Joseph’s Bay. There was an unusually brisk northeast wind and only the numerous seabirds to notice as the ship dropped anchor and passengers began wading the shallows to catch fish. The once famous city of St. Joseph, located six miles to the east, was already being smothered by vines and palmettos. The once thriving seaport was now only occasionally visited by fishermen who netted the enormous schools of mullet and other fish that thrived in the pristine bay.
The captain had planned to anchor in the deep hole near the point until it was safe to round the Cape. It seemed a wise decision, but Fate was to intervene and in 48 hours, FLORIDA, the pride of the New Orleans to Key West run, would lie splintered and broken upon the shore of St. Joseph’s Bay.
FLORIDA had been built in New York by Samuel Sneeden in l851 for Capt. Louis Coxetter of Jacksonville. The ship was 147 feet long, 28 feet wide, and had 44 berths in the staterooms. It had been financed by the Florida Steam Packet Company of Charleston, of which John W. Caldwell was principal stockholder. FLORIDA had been built to provide transportation for winter visitors from Charleston to Jacksonville and immediately became a success. The ship was described by the Jacksonville News as “a splendid new boat, and a long way in advance, in every respect, of any steamer that had hitherto appeared in our waters.”
Many of the crew were slaves, as noted in the following advertisement in the Florida News of March 19, 1853: “For sale, a capable engineer of unexceptional character, a like Negro of 30, on liberal terms. Information of which may be obtained from Captain Willey’s steamer, FLORIDA.” Willey had become FLORIDA’S captain in January l853; Coxetter became captain of FLORIDA’S newer and larger sister-ship, the S.S.CAROLINA.
Few steamships have the dubious distinction of setting a city on fire, but this apparently happened to FLORIDA on April 5, l854. Supposedly, a spark from FLORIDA’S stack ignited a hay shed on the Jacksonville wharf. Pushed by a strong westerly wind, the flames spread rapidly, destroying 70 buildings, including Capt. Willey’s home. FLORIDA drew away into the St. Johns and was not damaged. Possibly due to ill will caused by the fire, in Aug. l855, the ship was sold to E.G. Rogers and Company of New Orleans. FLORIDA was enrolled in that port on Jan.23, l856. The ship’s new master was W.L. Cozzens. FLORIDA replaced the CORNELIUS VANDERBILT on the Key West run.
The advertisement in the New Orleans Picayune read; “Excursions to Key West via Pensacola Navy Yard, Apalachicola, St. Marks, Cedar Keys, and Tampa Bay. Arriving at each port in the morning and through the day; giving ample time to fish and bathe at each place. Through to Key West from six to ten days and remaining in Key West six days. The U.S. Mail steamship, FLORIDA, W.L. Cozzens commander, will leave as above on the 26th from the lake end of the Jefferson Railroad at 8 o’clock a.m. carrying the U.S. mails. Fare for the excursion, going and returning, $50, with privilege of remaining on board while in port, having unsurpassed stateroom accommodations. Apply for freight or passage to E.G. Rogers and Company, Agents, 72 Poydras Street.”
When FLORIDA left New Orleans on its last voyage on Aug. 26, it carried 162 barrels of flour, 60 loaves of bread, 12 barrels and five hogsheads of sugar, 200 sacks of corn, 150 sacks of oats, 250 coils of rope, 12 casks of bacon, and 150 bales of hay for the horses of Key West. Also aboard were five men, two ladies, two children, and the crew.
Saturday, still at anchor in St. Joseph’s Bay, began with fog and strong east-northeast winds. At noon, a second anchor, with more chain, was dropped. As both anchors began to drag, the engine was increased to full power to keep the ship in place.
At 7 p.m. the anchors, even with the help of the engine, began to drag. At 8:15 the ship struck the shoal and the disintegration began. Huge seas boiled over the decks, and the upper saloon washed away at 10 p.m. The occupants gathered in the lower cabins for safety. At 2:30 Sunday morning the lower cabins began, to everyone’s horror, wash away. Everyone then climbed to the highest part of the ship, the gallows’ frame, and lashed themselves to it. At 4 a.m., as the eye of the storm began to pass to the north, the wind came even harder from the southwest. The ship continued to break apart.
At daylight all that was left was part of the wheelhouse, the boiler, engine, and the hull. All the decks, cabins, and cargo were strewn in the turtle grass and pines.
Finally, by 9 a.m., the wind subsided, the storm tide began to fall and by 10 o’clock everyone was able to walk to shore. Miraculously, everyone survived.
Then began the ordeal of building shelters and salvaging cargo. On Tuesday, the husband of one of the women passengers came from Apalachicola. His wife and two of the men passengers returned with him. On Wednesday, three boats came from Apalach to help salvage the wreck, but soon left because terms could not be reached with the captain who decided to save what was left himself.
On Saturday, Sept. 6, Cozzens allowed the remaining three passengers and the ship’s purser to take a lifeboat and try to reach Pensacola. They reached that city on Tuesday, eating only raw bacon and wet bread from the cargo on their voyage. Catching a ride on the schooner, DIAMOND, they succeeded in reaching New Orleans on Sunday the 14th, where they told the news of the disaster to the owners.
At this point the FLORIDA’S salvage is lost in the mists of history. Apparently the machinery and engine were saved and it was officially listed as abandoned in l858.
Since this section of Florida was uninhabited, the old side-wheeler was soon forgotten. Fishermen and campers would occasionally investigate the hulk, but salvagers and teredo worms soon caused destruction of all the wooden parts exposed above the sand. In a generation or two, even the ship’s name was forgotten.
I first wrote the story of FLORIDA in 1983. When archaeologists, unaware of my articles, came to the park in 2000, they promptly dubbed her as a “mystery wreck.” A graduate student came the next year from UWF, did some excavating, wrote his thesis and proclaimed the wreck as FLORIDA, a fact I and my earlier readers already knew.
FLORIDA lies in the boundaries of St. Joseph’s State Park and it is possible to wade or snorkel and examine the remains of the wreck. It lies buried under the sands of the turtle grass flats, only the rusting remains of the fireboxes rising above the surface like a grotesque tombstone, a silent warning to the destructive power of hurricanes and the fragility of man’s constructions.