Maple Leaf shipwreck divers continue historical awareness efforts at Mandarin Museum

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By Angela Higginbotham
angela@floridanewsline.com

Jacksonville native Dr. Keith Holland’s passion for history has always been prevalent, but his interest in underwater shipwrecks was piqued when his brother-in-law made trips to Florida to dive in the springs. In 1980, Holland began his research and began checking off shipwrecks that had been documented and found in the area — but one ship in particular, the Maple Leaf, sank off Mandarin Point more than a century ago and had never been found. Even retrieving official records with information on the vessel proved extremely difficult. With persistence, Holland eventually found the one-inch Maple Leaf file, and he began speaking with others to gain his own conclusion that the Maple Leaf did indeed still remain at the bottom of the St. Johns River.

Built in Kingston, Ontario in 1851, at 181 feet long by 25 feet wide, and weighing 398 tons, the Maple Leaf was sunk by a Confederate mine on April 1, 1864. Approximately 42 people were on board and four of them were killed. The steamboat was under contract to the U.S. Army, and had belongings of the 112th and 169th Regiments of New York Volunteers, and the 13th Indiana Regiment en route from Folly Island, S.C., to Jacksonville.

“Once I saw in my mind’s eye that this was an incredible opportunity, the idea of searching for the shipwreck was in the midst of absolute skepticism. No one believed it was there, that it could be recovered or that it was important enough. It took several years to locate the physical site of where the ship went down,” Holland said.

In 1984, Holland’s brother-in-law, an avid diver, went down into the murky water to find that the main deck of the Maple Leaf was buried under six to eight feet of mud. Although the mud would bring additional challenges to the efforts of the divers, Holland was well aware that what was buried deeper would also be better preserved.

In 1988, after announcing the Maple Leaf discovery and proceeding into an extensive effort of gaining the legal rights needed to move forward, the hull of the Maple Leaf was penetrated and hundreds of well-preserved items were retrieved.

In 1989, the exceptional divers, all volunteers, chosen by Holland were trained and went on to recover approximately 2,000 pounds of material, the largest collection of its kind known to ever exist. Gum rubber blankets, a never before seen rain hat, china, candlesticks, pencils, pens and many other treasures were recovered in the Maple Leaf shipwreck. After receiving a four year grant in 1994, the Maple Leaf wreckage became a historical landmark and the divers went on to recover a tremendous amount of cargo from the ship — yet it’s been determined that only 1 percent out of 800,000 pounds of cargo has been recovered thus far.

In 1996, after approximately 300 hours in the water, Holland and his team wrapped up the project and shared their findings with the world. Eighty percent of the items recovered were gifted to the state of Florida and none of the material was left in private hands. Holland hand-selected items recovered to display in the Mandarin Museum.

“I selected items with the intent of bringing out the personal side of the story. It’s important to understand that these were human beings. My greatest fear is that this part of our history will drift back into time and disappear again,” Holland said.

The talented and passionate divers that served on the team bringing this wreckage into the spotlight still come together twice a month to connect with each other and to contribute to the awareness of the incredible history of the Maple Leaf.  

Larry Tipping, one of the six main divers on Holland’s team, remembers the experience fondly as a once in a lifetime opportunity. Tipping and Holland met after Holland had just discovered the wreckage, and the two became immediate friends. A typical day would often mean spending four to six hours becoming mobilized to start the activities for each dive. The darkness of night was never a hindrance, because down deep in the St. Johns River it remains dark at all times. Bringing the artifacts up to the surface and having the responsibility to maintain them was a very labor intensive task for the team.

“Each person on this team brought their own set of skills and talent to the table. They were unselfish with their time and I’m thankful to have been a part of something so very worthwhile in preserving history,” Tipping said.  

The Mandarin Museum has materials recovered from this historical treasure on display. Located in the Walter Jones Historical Park at 11964 Mandarin Road, the Mandarin Museum has a large, informative exhibit on the Maple Leaf, along with the diving operation and the artifacts recovered from the wreckage. Dr. Keith Holland and the other St. Johns Archaeological Expedition divers are at the museum on “Meet the Divers” days to greet and talk with visitors of the museum. The next event will take place at the 18th annual Winter Celebration on Dec. 2 from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Visit www.mandarinmuseum.net for more information about the Maple Leaf or Dr. Holland and his team.

 

Photo courtesy Mandarin Museum & Historical Society

Dr. Keith Holland, Steve Michaelis, Bobby Lunsford, Paul Kramer, Larry Tipping and Mike Dupes at the Mandarin Museum.