AUE: ASSOCIATION OF UNDERWATER EXPLORERS
ABOUT THIS WRECK IN SHIPWRECKS OF THE SUNSHINE STATE!
recently, the "Middle Grounds Wreck" was an unidentified
wreck. She has positively been identified as the
tug Gwalia. She rests in 130 feet of water
just east of the Florida Middle Grounds in the Gulf of
RECENT A.U.E. DIVE TO THE WRECK OF THE "MIDDLE GROUNDS
(Images Courtesy of Jim Rozzi)
famous, but anonymous wreck that lies 80 miles offshore
in the gulf finally has a name: Gwalia.
TOMALIN, St. Petersburg Times Outdoors Editor
Published June 18, 2004
PETERSBURG - The only clues Michael Barnette had to go
on were two brass letters - "I" and "L" - presumably
from the mystery ship's nameplate.
were found by a local spearfisherman who had been one of
the first people to dive the wreck back in 1981," the
underwater explorer explained. "He had also noticed
brass portholes and other artifacts which led me to
believe that nobody had ever explored the site before."
thought of identifying a "virgin" shipwreck started
Barnette's adrenaline pumping.
the ultimate," said Barnette, author of the recently
released Shipwrecks of the Sunshine State.
"Diving a well-known, no matter what the history, just
doesn't thrill me. It is finding something that has not
been positively identified, then doing the research and
proving beyond any doubt the name of the ship, now
that's what it's all about."
a 32-year-old South Carolinian who lives in Tampa, is
founder and director of the Association of Underwater
Explorers, a coalition of scuba divers dedicated to the
research, exploration, documentation and preservation of
submerged cultural resources. A marine ecologist by
training, Barnette works in the federal National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration's St. Petersburg office
but spends most of his weekends on the road either
researching or exploring the nation's shipwrecks.
local scuba divers and fishermen had heard of the Middle
Grounds wreck," Barnette said. "Lying in 130 feet of
water, 80 miles offshore, it is fairly accessible to
had heard several theories regarding the wreck - some
said it was an old barge, others a freighter - but
nobody offered any solid evidence as the vessel's true
identity. That was until one day a colleague at work
told him a story about a Civil War-era ship that
disappeared during a December storm.
A cargo of
174-foot Heidelberg was built in a New York
shipyard in 1852 and ran aground south of Miami in
November 1859. The steamship was carrying 3,419 bales of
cotton and 1,600 wooden casks or "staves" valued at
$188,000 and was bound for New Orleans when it began
taking on water.
was subsequently towed to Key West, where the U.S.
District Court determined salvage rights. In Key West,
the ship was fitted with a steam pump and made ready so
it could continue on to New Orleans where it would be
refurbished and returned into service.
the night of Dec. 22, 1859, the Heidelberg
encountered one of the vicious winter squalls for which
the Gulf of Mexico is infamous.
people think the Gulf of Mexico is like a big lake,"
Barnette said. "But the reality is that it can get
pretty brutal out there. A 20-foot sea in the gulf is
much more dangerous than a 20-foot sea in the Atlantic
because the waves get much steeper and are much closer
captain gave the order to abandon ship and the crew and
passengers departed the foundering vessel in two
lifeboats. Seventeen passengers, a crew member and a
representative from the insurance company spent a long
night on the open water before the mate, thinking he was
further west, raised the sail and headed toward Cuba.
Fortunately, a passing merchantman, the Maritana
out of Genoa, Italy, sailed by and rescued the
survivors. The captain and nine other crewmen aboard the
second lifeboat were lost at sea.
first heard that the letters "I' and "L' had been found
on the wreck I thought that there was a good chance that
it could be the Heidelberg," Barnette said. "It
was the right location. It was a very good lead.
hours, sometimes days, poring over old microfilm. If I
find something that may be of use at a later date, I
make a note of it, even if it has nothing to do with the
particular ship that I am researching. Over the years, I
have developed my own data base."
suspected the Middle Grounds Wreck could be one of a
to go into something like this with an open mind," he
said. "But I must admit that I wanted it to be the
Heidelberg. After all, it's just such a great
spent months waiting for a chance to dive the Middle
Grounds Wreck, as trip after trip was canceled due to
bad weather. Finally in May, he had his chance.
didn't look right from the start," he said. "You could
still see the engine and double boilers, but the wreck
seemed a little small for the Heidelberg."
to Barnette's research, the ship had three decks. There
didn't seem to be enough debris to support a vessel of
that size. The fantail of the Middle Grounds Wreck was
clearly rounded; the Heidelberg's was definitely
square. But most disturbing was the fact that the hull
of the Middle Grounds Wreck was made of steel. The hull
of the Heidelberg, records showed, was built of
wood and sheathed in copper.
then that this wreck was probably not what we suspected
it to be," he said. "We would have to go back and take
some measurements to be certain what we were dealing
historians look for a single piece of incontrovertible
evidence - such as a nameplate - to confirm or deny a
Barnette's second visit, he measured the wreck's hull at
140 feet, 34 feet shorter than that of the
Heidelberg. Dean Marshall, a fellow diver, found a
pair of glass candlestick holders in the debris field.
Then Barnette noticed a brass object sticking up out of
started to race when I realized that it was the ship's
bell," he said. "That is the brass ring for wreck
divers. Ships bells are usually inscribed with the name
and date the ship is launched."
wiped away some growth but was disappointed to see that
the bell was barren. There was no name or date, which
did little to help determine the ship's identity.
Mike Barnette with "Gwalia" bell aboard Cubera, May
2004 - Left photo by Capt. Chad Carney
nearby, he also found a brass junction box that carried
the name of the manufacturer, Russell & Stoll Co., New
York. The Heidelberg was indeed built in New
York, but the junction box also carried a patent date,
obvious that the ship had electric lights, which were
not available until the late 1870s on ocean-going
vessels," Barnette said. "So that once and for all ruled
out that the Middle Grounds Wreck could be the
second dive of the day, Barnette and Marshall searched
for more artifacts. Toward the end of the dive, Marshall
discovered another intriguing piece of evidence.
the letter "G,' Barnette said. "Now we had three letters
of a possible name. It started me thinking."
the course of researching the Heidelberg's
sinking, Barnette came across the story of another ship
that was lost in the same area during the deadly month
Gwalia, a 130-foot ocean-going tug, was built in
Philadelphia in 1907. The ship left Mobile, Ala., on
Dec. 2, 1925 with the barge Altamaha and a load
of gravel destined for the Tampa Coal Company.
later, the tug and barge ran into the same kind of
winter storm that sank the Heidelberg in 1859.
The tug, taking on water, cut loose the barge and the
crew abandoned ship.
Hillberg, the tug's chief engineer, would later describe
the desperate situation to the Morning News Review
of Florence, S.C. On lowering the lifeboat "she
struck the side of the sinking tug and battered a hole
in the portside. Before we knew it, our lifeboat was
beginning to fill with water. With a couple of pails we
began bailing the water."
aboard the lifeboat tried to row to the nearby barge,
but the winds were too great.
sighted the barge again the next day," Barnette said.
"It took 13 hours of nonstop rowing to finally reach it.
The men were so weak, they could barely stand up."
5, a passing steamer, the Tampa, found the
drifting barge and offered assistance. But the captain
refused any aid or provisions and asked just that the
Tampa report the barge's position to officials at
the Tampa Coal Company. A second vessel, the tug Jim
Sid, spotted the Altamaha the next day, but
the Sid had its own barge and couldn't tow two.
headed in, anchored its barge near land and then
returned offshore to help rescue the Altamaha.
But when it got there, the barge with 22 men on board
was nowhere to be seen.
Still Adrift With Crew of Tug," was the headline in the
Tampa Daily Times on Dec. 8. The next day the news
was no better: "3-Day Search of Lost Barge Crew
rescuers did not give up hope. A seaplane from St.
Petersburg, six tugs and the U.S. Cutter-Cruiser
Tallapoosa kept up the search on Dec. 10. Dense fog
hampered their efforts.
of 22 Men Off Coast," was the headline from the United
Press. "The treacherous Gulf today still refused to
yield any trace of the missing barge Altamaha."
on Dec. 14, the newspaper announced: "Rescued Barge Crew
Brought In Port Here."
had survived eight days with little food or water when
the Coast Guard cutter found the barge 130 miles due
west of Tampa Bay.
portholes found near the bow of The Middle Grounds Wreck
and smaller portholes toward the stern are typical of an
early 20th century ocean-going tug, Barnette said.
also found a large brass H-bitt still attached to the
were mandatory on tugboats so they could secure the
hawser lines from barges for towing," he said. "This
also tells me that we have the right name."
said he knows scuba divers and anglers may still call
the vessel the Middle Grounds Wreck. But gradually, as
word spreads, the name Gwalia will catch on.
meantime, Barnette and the other members of the
Association of Underwater Explorers will keep up the
search for the Heidelberg and other lost ships.
it is out there," he said. "It's just a matter of time
until we find her."
get a copy of Michael C. Barnette's Shipwrecks of the
Sunshine State: Florida's Submerged History, check
your local scuba shop. You can also go to
or call the publisher at (727) 560-2554.
Area man has key to mystery of ship's bell
St Pete Times
By TERRY TOMALIN
ST. PETERSBURG - When Clearwater attorney Jim
Hellinger read a recent Times article about "The
Middle Grounds Wreck," he noticed something familiar.
"I was one of the first scuba divers to dive the
wreck," Hellinger said. "In fact, I've got the ship's
Local shipwreck historian and underwater explorer
Michael Barnette had spent months trying to determine
the identity of the wreck that lay about 80 miles off
the coast in 130 feet of water.
"We found a bell on the wreck," Barnette explained.
"But it had no markings."
A ship's bell usually has the name and date the
vessel was launched. Barnette was disappointed the
artifact that he recovered off what he would later
conclude was the Gwalia, an ocean-going tug sunk
in 1925, was absent of markings.
"I know now that that was because what we found was a
secondary bell, probably from the stern of the tug,"
Hellinger, it turns out, had the ship's primary bell
at his home in Clearwater. Hellinger and some friends,
including legendary St. Petersburg spearfisherman Jim
Zumwalt, discovered the wreck in 1981.
"Those old-timers never really talked too much about
what they found," said Captain Chad Carney, a
competitive spearfisherman who writes for the Times.
"They always kept their cards close to their chest."
Barnette, author of the definitive Shipwrecks of
Florida, said he was glad that Hellinger came
"It just confirms what we thought," Barnette said.
"In the next edition of the book, when we write again
about The Middle Grounds Wreck, we'll make sure they get
the proper credit."
Hellinger said he was glad to finally read a full
accounting of the Gwalia's sinking which would
not have been possible without Barnette's meticulous
detective work. "I enjoyed the article," he said.