By Brett Nolan

Laid to rest in a blanket of mud, eight feet under the turbid waters of the natural ribbon that cuts through the city of Jacksonville, the “Maple Leaf” saw life above the mighty St. Johns River for the last time 155 years ago.

On the early morning of April 1, 1864, the sky was dark yet clear; the St. Johns River was still and smooth. The noise from the ship’s paddle wheel, softly thrashing through the murky waters of the river, was calming like the ticking of an old clock. Air was dense with the fragrance from thousands of orange blossoms along Mandarin Point. Only 15 miles from journey’s end at Jacksonville and under the direction of the revered river pilot, Romeo Murray, a former Kingsley Plantation slave, there was ease knowing they made it through Confederate territory. While threats from the shelling of rebel shore batteries remained, orders were issued for the entirety of the trip be made in darkness; only the binnacle light glowed from the pilot’s house. Suddenly, at 3:59 a.m., tranquility turned to chaos as the “Maple Leaf” struck an underwater mine.

One of 12, each a yard in length, the mines spanned from Mandarin Point to what is now Orange Park. Inevitably, a ship would encounter one, as planned. Five Confederates from the Second Florida Battalion partnered with intelligence operative, Captain E. Pliny Bryan, created these explosives for placement along the river. Each was filled with 70 pounds of cannon powder. When the “Maple Leaf” met her destroyer, the explosion roared with earsplitting clangor, thrusting those in the pilot house upwards, their heads hitting the roof. The bow caved in, the pilot house fell forward, the boat’s timbers cracked and contorted. The aroma of orange blossoms was now choked by thick smoke; a wire stretched from the calamity setting off the craft’s steam whistle and the “Maple Leaf” screamed in agony.

Those on board scurried to gather their belongings; however, within six revolutions of her paddle wheel, the steamship sank into the depths of the St. Johns. A ship with her hull filled with 800,000 pounds of cargo now settled on the bottom of the river; only the uppermost levels of the deck and parts of the smokestack snorkeled above the surface. The commanding officer exclaimed it would be the “better part of valor” to evacuate before any Rebels roused by the thunderous commotion could approach. Fifty-eight passengers and crew manned the lifeboats; by 4:30 a.m. they rowed to Jacksonville, arriving four hours later. Four freedmen working as deckhands were killed instantly by the blast while sleeping.

That afternoon, the “USS Norwich” arrived on-site; the “Maple Leaf” and her cargo were deemed a complete loss. Soldiers in Jacksonville learned their wait would be eternal, their personal belongings and regiment equipage laid to rest in a watery grave. On April 2, Captain Bryan and his Confederate crew returned to burn the rest of the vessel to the water line.

Over the next century, parts of the ship were removed, easing navigational hazards. With the hull of the ship left intact, still filled with cargo, the rocking river currents nestled the craft deep into the river bed, encapsulating its contents in a complete anaerobic state. These artifacts remained in slumber for more than 120 years until a local dentist made the discovery that the “Maple Leaf” was buried under the mud — a thought nearly lost to time.

Part 3 of “Back in Time With Brett” in the June issue of “Mandarin NewsLine” will tell the story of excavation of this Civil War treasure.

Brett Nolan is a volunteer with the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society. Visit for more information about Mandarin’s history.


Rendering courtesy Kevin McCarthy

“Maple Leaf” by artist William Trotter.


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