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Divers Return to View Maple Leaf Ship Wreck Artifacts After 30 Years

April 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A historic civil war era shipwreck in the St. John’s River was discovered in the late 1980’s and excavated in the 90’s.

The team that was responsible for the discovery got a chance to revisit many of the artifacts for the first time Friday, since they removed them from the mud nearly 30 years ago.

In 1865 a The Maple Leaf, a steamboat carrying supplies for the Union army hit a mine in the St. Johns river and sank into the muddy waters below.

“And the hull is in an intact U-shapped time capsule,” said Dr. Keith Holland, President of St. Johns Archeological Expeditions.

With the help of a team of divers, the wreck was discovered more than 100 years later, and researchers were able to recover more than 6,500 artifacts, mostly personal items, that were trapped inside.

“It was just literally grope and feel. Where we would reach into the mud and find an object,” said divert Larry Tipping.

The items inside were preserved almost perfectly.

“Even letters that were received and written. It’s just a human element that’s there and there’s not another site like it anywhere,” said Holland.

Now, primarily stored in this state archive in Florida’s capital city, the original team returned for the first time to visit the artifacts since they were brought up from the mud in the 1990’s.

“I think it’s important to know our history and you know, of course looking at the artifacts that were part of history really just kind of continues that,” said Tipping.

It’s believed the excavation in the 90s only scratched the surface of what remains on the ship.

The items recovered represent only 0.1% of the ship’s cargo.

The discovery of the Maple Leaf was so significant the site of the wreck is now designated as a national historical landmark.

Dr. Holland says, ensuring the wreck and its cargo are still around for future generations, is a responsibility shared by all in the state.

“And we’re going to do everything we can to educate students and people of all ages about Maple Leaf and not let her just drift back into obscurity,” said Holland.

If the site is protected properly, divers say it will keep open the possibility of future excavations to recover some of what is still buried in the mud.

While the items in the state archive are not readily accessible for viewing by the public, many of the artifacts recovered from the Maple Leaf ship wreck are loaned out to museums across the state, including the Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville and the Museum of Florida History in the State’s Capital City.

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