Underwater archaeologists piece together the story of a British steamship that sank off Key Largo more than a century ago.


Underwater archaeologists piece together the story of a British steamship that sank off Key Largo more than a century ago.


In the Nov. 15, 1909, edition of the Boston Daily Globe, officers of the British steamship Hannah M. Bell reported being chased by six “monster waterspouts” near Cape Hatteras, N.C.

On that same day, the New York Tribune’s account of the incident stated that Captain Cooper saved the ship and crew with his shotgun. When those whirling spirals of forceful water got dangerously near the steamer, they were “disintegrated by the sea captain’s well aimed shots.”

But less than two years later, good fortune ran out for the 315-foot steel cargo ship. In stormy weather, it crashed into Elbow Reef, which juts close to the Gulf Stream and lies in an average of 20 feet of water in the Atlantic Ocean, about six miles offshore of Key Largo.

The April 3, 1911, grounding made news, as did the ensuing salvage attempts — including one by the steamer Roosevelt that was taken to the North Pole by arctic explorer Robert E. Peary. The ship made headlines again in 1912, albeit with the wrong name of “Anna M. Bell,” after two boat captains were arrested by federal agents for stealing winches and engines from the wreck. And in 1920, the “Anna M. Bell” was in the news once more when the steamer Quoque wrecked directly on top of it.

But as the years turned into decades, and the decades into nearly a century, the wreck’s fascinating history became lost. When diving became popular in the 1970s in the Keys, the steel remains became known only as Mike’s Wreck, name after a local boat captain. Some thought it might be a Civil War-era wreck called the Tonawanda. But the ship’s real identity was a mystery.

It was not until two years ago that the wreck officially was recognized in modern times as the Hannah M. Bell, named after the woman who christened the boat. The lead investigator who unraveled the mystery — Matthew Lawrence, a maritime archaeologist at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts Bay — returned last week with a team of mostly volunteers to complete the survey of the massive wreck.

“It’s really neat to see how vessels ran up on the reef and got all contorted,” Lawrence said. “One of the things we can reveal by this mapping project is how much of a factor the ocean, with the waves battering this thing, played in its breaking apart — and how much was due to salvage that went on for years after the Hannah M. Bell wrecked.”

Lawrence, Brenda Altmeier (maritime heritage coordinator for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary) and 22 other amateur underwater archaeologists from around the country meticulously measured, drew and precisely plotted locations of the Hannah M. Bell’s remaining structure, as well as scattered pieces that have become part of the colorful coral reef over the past 103 years.

In 2012, a small team of six divers had mapped about 25 percent of the ship, enough to make the official identification. Lawrence returned this time with a small army of volunteers, most of them members of Diving With A Purpose, a program founded 10 years ago by Ken Stewart of Tennessee. The group of 24 surveyed the remaining 75 percent of the wreck, the length of a football field. There work is being compiled into a single map of the site that will be made available to the public. The hope is to make laminated versions that divers can bring with them to the wreck.

Instead of a fish finder, “it’s like a wreck finder,” said Eric Denson, lead instructor of Diving With A Purpose and an electrical engineer with NASA.

Denson said he wants to do his part to help “conserve and preserve” these type of wrecks, even though they did not carry gold, silver or other treasure. “They are important culturally,” he said.

In the 1990s, a group of volunteer divers documented about 400 wreck sites just in the northeast region of the sanctuary, from Alligator Reef off Islamorada to Biscayne National Park. Some are complete shipwrecks. Others, like Bunn Canyon Patch — where 13 canyons were discovered —are likely just “offloaded” tackle left behind so a ship could lighten its load.

“There are so many of these left to identify, at least 250 to 300,” Altmeier said. “But knowing the history makes all the difference in the world. There is definitely more appreciation when people know what it was, know what year it went down and know where it was coming from and what it was carrying.”

The identification of the Hannah M. Bell began in 2009, when Lawrence came to the Keys to train members of Diving With A Purpose in underwater archeology techniques. They were working on the popular dive site City of Washington, a 320-foot schooner turned steamship that sank in 1917 while being pulled by a tugboat.

Altmeier mentioned to Lawrence that nearby was this other site known as Mike’s Wreck. “She said, ‘Dive on it and tell me what you think,’ ” Lawrence said. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to be able to put a name to this. Something like this doesn’t just run aground and just get totally forgotten.’ 

So he returned to Massachusetts and “with the wonders of computer data bases” was able to find newspaper accounts of groundings that seemed to match the type of ship and location of the wreck. Then with the names of the ships, he researched other sources to get structural information to narrow the possible “characters.”

His best bet was the Hannah M. Bell, which plied the waters between ports in Europe, South America, the Carribean and the East and Gulf coasts of the United States, carrying raw materials including coal, sugar and cotton.

Lawrence tracked down a photograph of the vessel from people in England who had researched the maritime history of the River Tees, where the Hannah M. Bell was launched in 1893.

The pieces to the puzzle included the discovery at the wreck site of thousands of tiny pieces of coal mixed with the sand, as well as one large piece about the size of a football.

“It all started matching up very well,” Lawrence said.

On its last voyage, the Hannah M. Bell was carrying thousands of tons of coal — a cargo valued at more than $100,000, according to an April 20, 1911, article in the Miami Herald —when it ran into rough weather traveling south to Vera Cruz, Mexico.

The Roosevelt, which Peary used for his Arctic expedition, was on its way from New York to help with the rescue when it was told to turn around after the Hannah M. Bell was determined to be a total loss. Stormy weather led to strong ocean waves and current that ripped it apart before it could be removed from the reef. Captain Thomas was the last to abandon the vessel. All 13 crew members had also been rescued.

Lawrence found at least two other accounts where the Hannah M. Bell had grounded in South Florida, once near Miami and another in the Dry Tortugas. Both times it was able to be refloated.

In a 1907 Boston Daily Globe report, the steamer’s sailors arrived “frostbitten” during a voyage from Cuba, with a cargo of 23,899 bags of sugar. During this stomy passage, Captain Cooper reported passing a great quantity of wreckage northeast of Nantucket, believed to be fragments of the steamer Larchmont.

While salvagers recovered most of the coal and other parts of the Hannah M. Bell, including the engines, large sections of the steel structure are left, including one that rises 15 feet above the sea floor.

Lawrence pointed out several cool features. There are the large bits used to tie up the steamship at docks, and the cut water, a piece of solid steel 25 feet long that was at the bow of the boat, to cut through the water like a knife’s edge.

“It’s fallen over now, but is really pretty with sea fans on it and fish living underneath it,” Lawrence said.

A large lobster watched the group as it worked with tape measures, pencils and underwater slates to document features in respect to a 210-foot baseline. Other denizens of the reef, including two nurse sharks, a moray eel, a sea turtle and several barracudas, also made appearances through the wreck — brightly lit by the sun.

Most of Elbow Reef’s numerous shipwrecks were vessels headed south before their demise. Lawrence said ship owners tried to save fuel costs by hugging the coast a bit too closely to try to avoid the Gulf Stream, which flows northward.

Lawrence hopes to return to the Keys to check out another wreck that is only about 200 yards away from the Hannah M. Bell. His initial research leads him to believe it’s the Acorn, a 165-foot steamer that was launched near Glasgow, England, in 1881 and sank in 1885.

“It’s another great story of a tramp steamer sailing all over the Atlantic, picking up various cargos,” Lawrence said. “On its last voyage it was loaded with a cargo of grain, lard and oil. The grain was ruined but the lard and oil were in buoyant casks that started floating off the ships. The wreckers were recovering these floating casks as they drifted out to the Gulf Stream. This was their chance to make a good buck.”

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