NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Shipwrecks: City of Washington

National marine sanctuaries protect some of America’s most spectacular marine and Great Lakes waters, making them fantastic places to dive and snorkel. One of the most fascinating underwater adventures comes from exploring the national marine sanctuary system’s shipwrecks, such as City of Washington.

Divers visiting Key Largo in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary have many options, such as the deep wreck of the USS Spiegel Grove or the composite sailing ship Slobodna on Molasses Reef. The City of Washington on Elbow Reef, however, is a can’t-miss wreck. Crystal-clear water no more than 30 feet (10 m) deep reveals the lower hull of this steamship, captured by the coral reef.

History of the City of Washington 

The City of Washington was built on the Delaware River at Chester, Pennsylvania. The Roach shipyard launched the 300-foot (90 m) steamship in August 1877 for Alexandre and Sons to run between New York and Cuba. Competition between steamship lines to Cuba led to the Ward line’s dominance. Subsequently, the company bought out Alexandre and Sons and took control of City of Washington in 1888.

Ten years later, City of Washington was anchored in Havana harbor the night the USS Maine exploded. Its crew launched boats and helped rescue sailors in the water. The U.S. government then chartered the steamer from the Ward line as a troop transport during the Spanish American War. City of Washington carried U.S. soldiers to Cuba for the island’s invasion. By 1908, the steamship no longer met the needs of the traveling public and, within a few years, the Luckenbach Steamship Co. stripped out the steamer’s machinery and removed its upper deck, converting it to a schooner barge.

After many successful trips through the treacherous Florida Straits, a violent electrical storm in July 1917 caused the tug Luckenbach #4 and its consort barges Seneca and City of Washington to ground on Elbow Reef. The tug and Seneca refloated undamaged on the next high tide, but City of Washington was stuck fast. The USCG Cutter Tampa and Luckenbach #4 tried unsuccessfully to pull it off the reef. Valued at $266,000 with 3,500 tons of coal worth $17,500 in its hold, City of Washington was a total loss. Salvage of the vessel’s hull and its coal cargo followed by numerous hurricanes and battering waves split open the hull, reducing it to the low-lying structure seen today.

Diving the City of Washington

City of Washington has been a favorite dive site for decades. It is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail. This route consists of nine historical shipwrecks scattered from Key West to Key Largo. Like all of the shipwreck trail sites, City of Washington features abundant, colorful marine life. Its many nooks and crannies hold lobster, eels, spotted drum, and other shy creatures. Large groupers and nurse sharks like the crevices in the ship’s hull, too. But divers can also see them swimming around the wreck. The firsts divers in the water can usually see turtles, barracuda, and tarpon. Pieces of the steamship’s hull projecting into the water column are festooned with encrusting invertebrates like sponges and sea fans taking advantage of superb filter-feeding opportunities. Key Largo dive charters visit the shipwreck almost daily, making it an easy outing to fit into a trip.

Divers visiting City of Washington should not damage or disturb the wreck. Like all shipwrecks in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, protective regulations seek to preserve it for future visitors. Likewise, the Elbow Reef Sanctuary Preservation Area protects the wreck’s marine life and prohibits fishing and lobstering.

Indiana University’s Center for Underwater Science has led a multi-decade research program to archaeologically investigate the shipwreck, categorize its marine life, and monitor it for changes. Most recently, university researchers, in partnership with the sanctuary’s managers and the Boy Scouts of America, collected imagery that was compiled into an interactive 3D model of the shipwreck. The model has already proven to be a very helpful sanctuary management tool. Recent monitoring visits to the shipwreck by sanctuary divers compared the pre-Hurricane Irma model to its current condition. Fortunately, little change was found to the shipwreck’s structure and it remains a great dive.

Guest author Matthew Lawrence is a maritime archaeologist for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

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