Civil War ship found in Hillsborough River

Last Edited: Tuesday, 20 May 2008, 5:52 PM EDT
Created: Tuesday, 20 May 2008, 3:43 PM EDT

TAMPA - Beneath the murky water - hardly visible at all - a dive team with the
Florida Aquarium has made quite a discovery - a find that may be even better
than buried treasure.
Using sonar, the team says they've found what could be the remains of a
wrecked civil war blockade-runner.
"The wreck is in the right place according to historic research. The
construction looks to be right and the vessel has been burnt," explained
archaeologist Billy Morris.
In 1862, three ships tried to get past Union forces blockading Florida's ports,
and all three were destroyed.
The team has narrowed it down, but still can't say for sure which Civil War ship
they believe this one is. They say they will have an answer before their work is
"It would be extremely significant in terms of Florida's history, especially
considering how little is actually been done with the civil war in Florida and this
would be the first Confederate blockade runner every found in this state,"
offered Morris.
The dive team has been working the area for nearly two years, and they're
wrapping up in just another week or so.
People living along the river still can't believe the find and feel they too are
becoming a part of the project.
"It was just really neat, interesting, got us really interested in looking up the
history of it and everything else on it," said resident John Gonzalez.
Divers say the ship will remain right where it is. They have no plans to remove
any of it.;jsessionid=F6D665CDA2755EBCF6273878792C7FCA?contentId=6585375&version=2&locale=EN-US&layoutCode=TS
Underwater Photo of what is
believed to be the Kate Dale
TAMPA — Billy Ray Morris hovered in the water above his prize, the
submerged hull of what may be the Kate Dale, a Civil War blockade runner.
“It’s a first for Florida if it’s the Kate Dale,” said Morris, a marine archaeologist
who specializes in ship construction and interpretation. And he’s 90 percent
Union troops burned the Kate Dale — loaded with cotton and ready to run a
federal blockade — along with another boat on Oct. 17, 1863.
“She’s badly burnt and she’s exactly where she ought to be,” Morris said of the
crumbling wooden frame. “Nobody else has found a blockade runner in
The boat was probably 80 to 100 feet, Morris said. Its buried ruins stretch out
38 feet now, starting about 5 feet from Janet Stanley’s dock.
“There has always been this skeleton of a boat, and it’s been whittling down
over the years,” said Stanley, who has lived on the river across from Lowry
Park Zoo for 10 years. Low tide exposes nubs of the boat’s hull.
The underwater excavation is part of a larger project being carried out by
Florida Aquarium volunteer divers through a $50,000 state grant.
Their goal is to find as many wrecks in the area as possible. Using sonar
imaging, they’ve found ruins near Egmont Key and MacDill Air Force Base and
in the Manatee River.
If this is the Kate Dale, their finds will include a blockade runner and the Union
blockade ship Narcissus, which Morris said they mapped last year.
Construction features will tell the story, such as the size and type of wood and
metal fasteners and the boat’s design. On Friday, Morris hopes to be 98
percent sure. When he’s learned all he can, the ruins will be covered over to
rest in peace.
“If it came out of the water, it would deteriorate 1,000 times faster,” said Morris,
who has explored more than 150 shipwrecks, many of them Civil War vessels.
Built in Louisiana, the Kate Dale was one of the boats operated by Capt.
James McKay, a blockade runner.
The divers also had hoped to find McKay’s paddleboat, the Scottish Chief, in
the riverbed. But Morris suspects its burnt hull was dragged back down to
Tampa Bay and stripped.
McKay struck a deal with Union troops that allowed the Kate Dale to come and
go through the blockade.
“They let him slip through,” said historian Canter Brown Jr. “He had been a
prisoner of war, and he made an arrangement that Abraham Lincoln personally
signed off on: If he were released, he would come back to Tampa and he
would organize his cattlemen association to support the U.S. military takeover
in Tampa.
“In fact he was a Unionist,” Brown said.
McKay shipped cotton to Cuba and brought back rum, medicine, food and
other supplies to be sold dockside.
When the relationship became too obvious, Union troops were sent to burn his
boats as a cover, Brown said.
The Union raid began with U.S. gunboats Tahoma and Adela shelling Fort
Brook to distract the Rebels while troops landed at Gadsden’s Point in

They marched overland along the river, found McKay’s boats and destroyed

Now, 145 years later, the Kate Dale may no longer sleep in an unmarked grave.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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