The Maple Leaf at the Museum of Science and History

October 13, 2012 23 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The rising and sinking of The Maple Leaf and its significance at MOSH's Currents of Time exhibit.

The St. Johns River is noteworthy for many reasons: it’s the longest river in Florida, one of the “laziest” rivers in the world, north-flowing, and is home to what remains of the 1864 Maple Leaf shipwreck.

Maple Leaf model on display at MOSH

The 181-foot-long by 25-foot-wide transport vessel transported US troops during the American Civil War until it struck a missile off Mandarin Point and caused the ship to tear apart and rapidly sink, killing four soldiers and destroying an immeasurable amount of supplies in the process.

But when the ship was built, its origins were nowhere near Florida and it was never even meant to serve a part in the war.  Donald Bethune, the Maple Leaf’s first owner, used it as a passenger steamship in Ontario, Canada.  The 398-ton ship was eventually sold to a New York-based company, then to J.H.B Lang and Charles Spear who finally rented it to the US Army in 1862 due to the up-rise in the charter market.

The museum displays a binder full of pictures and facts about the giant boat

The Maple Leaf transported Union troops and equipment south, but in 1863 the ship’s planned route was momentarily halted by Confederate prisoners-of-war who overthrew guards and guided the vessel to Richmond, Va., where they then escaped.  The original shipmates regained control and continued to travel along the East coast and relocate troops for the next year.

Exhibit on loan through the courtesy of Col. and Mrs. John T. Winkler of Mandarin Point

In April 1864 the Maple Leaf’s travel itinerary came to a sudden, permanent stop when the torpedo exploded and broke the ship in two.

Though what’s left of the vessel remains in the St. Johns River, since attempts from the US Treasury Department to sell the wreck fell through, it has since been moved from the original crash site so it wouldn’t pose as a threat to other large ships.  The wreck is now a National Historic Landmark that lies about 12 miles from downtown Jacksonville, under 20 feet of water, collecting mud.

The area is not permissible to dive, but more than 3,ooo recovered artifacts are on display at MOSH in the Currents of Time exhibit.

article and photos by Melanie Pagan

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