Historic Jacksonville shipwreck

A model of the Union steamship Maple Leaf is shown on display in August 2014 at the Mandarin Museum

By Dan Scanlan - The Florida Times

Jacksonville’s most historic shipwreck may have been damaged by submerged telephone cables draped over or through its 152-year-old wooden bones, according to the man who led its archaeological exploration in the 1980s and ’90s off Mandarin Point.

So Keith Holland is pushing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get the cables moved from the National Historic Landmark site of the Union steamship Maple Leaf and the thousands of U.S. Army artifacts buried within it.

As he helps a third company reroute a planned third cable around the 1864 shipwreck, Holland said he wonders how the Maple Leaf’s federal protection apparently failed.

“The state and federal statutes of the National Historic Preservation Act appear to be worthless because somehow, unknown to me, the shipwreck site had telecommunications cables put across it,” Holland said. “Although I am gravely concerned about this transgression, I am not dispirited by it. …

Right now my major objective is to test our state and federal historic preservation statutes to see what can be done to mitigate this.”

The Maple Leaf was headed to Jacksonville early April 1, 1864, with the possessions of the 112th and 169th New York and the 13th Indiana regiments onboard when Confederate mines blew its bow off, killing four. Most of the wreck ended under 7 feet of mud, which kept the 900,000 pounds of personal and military gear inside preserved.

In 1989, Holland and St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions began excavating part of it, recovering 4,500 artifacts over the next few years, including shoes, belt buckles and a rare gum rubber rain hat.

In 1994, it was declared a National Historic Landmark, joining the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor off North Carolina as the only shipwrecks on that list. Landmark designation is given to sites that possess “exceptional value” in commemorating U.S. history and is supposed to protect them, according to the National Park Service.

Florida and the Park Service set up a 24-acre buffer zone around the actual wreck. Yet Holland found two cables were laid through that buffer zone. In his July 1 letter to the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, he asked for remedial action and fines “for the negligent acts” of the state, Corps of Engineers Jacksonville and others.

The advisory council forwarded its own inquiry to the corps, which responded Aug. 19. Jacksonville corps regulatory official Tori White’s letter verified a permit was issued in 1990 so Southern Bell could lay a telephone line underwater between Mandarin and Orange Park.

The permit was approved prior to historic designation, so compliance with the preservation act wasn’t required, she wrote. But Holland said the wreck site was well-known before that designation, as was his team’s investigation, with dozens of stories in the Times-Union about it between 1985 and 1989.

Plus, the corps approved work there, he said.

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