Divers return to see Maple Leaf shipwreck artifacts after 30 years

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CAPITOL NEWS SERVICE) - A historic Civil War-era shipwreck in the St. Johns River was discovered in the late 1980s and excavated in the 90s.

The team responsible for the discovery revisited many of the artifacts for the first time Friday since they removed them from the mud nearly 30 years ago.

In 1865 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-shaped time capsule,” said Dr. Keith Holland, President of St. Johns Archaeological 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 diver 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 1990s.

“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 shipwreck 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.