Mapping history

Couple find ship sunk by Confederates in St. Johns River

Bill and Sandi Rivers of Keystone Heights are working to recognize the correct location of the U.S.S. Columbine wreckage in the St. Johns River which dates to the Civil War. Shown here Jan. 5 Bill Rivers holds what he believes is a piece of the U.S.S. Columbine's rub-rail system.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 11:08 p.m.



Additional information about the USS Columbine can be found online at or at the state Web site

Bill Rivers is a history buff with a problem.
Rivers got so interested in a Civil War skirmish that once he started investigating what happened to one of the boats involved, he could not stop. He is now on a quest - a self-appointed mission - to try to get an underwater shipwreck site preserved and the state records on the site of the wreck changed.
"I didn't get involved to get to this level - I just wanted to learn about the battle," Rivers said. "Now I can't quit. But I am also doing this so that other people will know where this happened."
Rivers, a former Clay County Sheriff's crime scene investigator, along with his wife and diving partner, Sandi,believe they have found the remains of the USS Columbine, a 117-foot, wooden hull tug that was a steam-powered sidewheeler purchased in 1862 for $25,800. Official U.S. Navy and Florida archival records show that the Columbine was captured and sunk by Confederates in the St. Johns River on May 23, 1864, at Horse Landing, near Palatka.
In addition to having the wreck's location correctly identified, Rivers said he would like to see an excavation of the Columbine so that any human remains still on board can be buried, or that the wreck is designated as a military site.
Rivers' near-obsession started when he went looking for remains of the boat in the murky waters of the St. Johns.
Using information from Florida's Master Site File, Bill and Sandi Rivers began diving in the area where the file indicated the wreckage would be found. Instead they found what they believe is an error in the state records.
The master file is a listing maintained by the state of historically significant sites. Almost anyone can ask to have a site added to the file, according to Marion F. Smith Jr., the Master Site File supervisor.
Underwater shipwreck sites are considered cultural resources on the file. Of the 151,000 cultural resources listed on the file, 121,000 are buildings and 28,000 are archaeological sites including shipwrecks, Smith said.
Requirements to get something considered for inclusion on the Master Site File are that the item or site be at least 50 years old and that a standardized state form be used to report it. In most cases, a map of the area where the item is located and a photograph must be included.
"We don't have the resources to do any kind of field check but we do judge the completeness of the information," Smith said. "Most documentation comes to us from people known to us, like archaeologists working with a private firm or a historian from a state agency."
Some forms also are submitted by residents who have come across something interesting they believe the state should know about. The result is that details can be inconsistent.
"We can and do amend listings when appropriate but we try to be careful at the original stage, and we are very careful about changing the information already on hand," Smith said. "We evaluate the accuracy as best we can, and often we consult with other people if we know they may be able to shed further light on a specific site."
The Riverses said they could not find the Columbine or any other shipwreck in the area indicated by the site file. The couple were convinced that the wreck had to be somewhere nearby in the river because of all the records they found in other Civil War archival searches. They continued their search by using bottom scanning sonar and widened their search.
It took six months to find what they believe is the Columbine wreck, but it is a mile south of the shipwreck site identified in the master file.
"I think what may have happened is that Horse Landing today is up by the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch, which is a different place than Horse Landing was in 1864," Bill Rivers said.
Ryan J. Wheeler, chief of Florida's Bureau of Archaeological Research, said Rivers tried to interest his agency in researching the Columbine.
"That is not the business that we are in," he said. "We rely on private citizens to let us know what is going on."
Some underwater sites, like the City of Hawkinsville that sank in the Suwannee River near Fanning Springs, have been nominated by private residents and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the bureau does get involved with preservation efforts in those situations.
"The Columbine is probably not a good candidate for a shipwreck preserve because of where it is," he said.
The St. Johns River is so murky that few divers can see their own fingers when they extend their hand directly in front of their face.
Although disappointed, Rivers said he has begun working to document what he believes is the actual location of the Columbine so that the state records can be updated. He also has set up a Web site so that others interested in the Columbine can follow the progress of his efforts and learn more about the ship.
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or

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