The Life Aquatic

Brenda Lanzendorf's underwater excavations reveal Biscayne Bay's secret past

Most federal dollars that go to Biscayne are earmarked for the park's original mission of managing its pristine ecology, not studying cultural artifacts. At the park's visitor center, the only mention of Lanzendorf's work is a small photo and a single sentence: "Archaeologists uncover underwater secrets."

The secrets Lanzendorf has uncovered are mostly collecting dust. For want of staff, more than 90 percent of Biscayne's 700,000 archival items — wreck studies, maps, drawings, photographs, and artifacts — are uncatalogued and inaccessible at park service storage buildings.

Nancy Russell is the sole archivist for Biscayne as well as Dry Tortugas and Everglades National parks, Big Cypress National Monument, and De Soto National Memorial. At the South Florida Collections Management Center in the Everglades, Russell has her hands full battling silverfish that eat ink off pages, and cockroaches that eat, lay eggs on, and defecate all over documents in the climate-controlled storage areas. While it costs anywhere from 26 cents to $2.97 to preserve, catalogue, and store the average archival item or artifact, the park service budget allows for about a quarter of one cent per item. A cannon salvaged from the Fowey and displayed at Biscayne's visitor center requires $6000 to $7000 worth of conservation treatment every year.

Photo courtesy National Park Service
A park service diver surveys a wreck site.  Most remains are left in place for future study
Photo courtesy National Park Service
A park service diver surveys a wreck site. Most remains are left in place for future study
Brenda Lanzendorf: "I will never, ever, ever leave this park"
Jacqueline Carini
Brenda Lanzendorf: "I will never, ever, ever leave this park"

"We've made an effort not to bring up artifacts unless we have a preservation plan that includes funding for the conservation treatment," Russell says, adding that no new underwater artifact has been brought in from Biscayne in three years. With only temporary interns and volunteers as assistants, Russell struggles to put a dent in the 30-year backlog of cataloguing work. "A lot of times, quite honestly, things are coming in faster than we can deal with," she says.

Although most of Biscayne's archives are with Russell, most of the park's thousands of shipwreck artifacts are stockpiled 500 miles away, in Tallahassee. Here at the park service's Southeast Archaeological Center (SEAC) are nine million archives and artifacts from 43 national parks throughout the Southeast and the Virgin Islands.

The center's staff has made "pretty steady progress" cataloguing Biscayne's relics, says collection database manager Brinnen Carter, in part because only a handful are sent in every year. Carter plans to begin posting photographs of the artifacts to SEAC's Website.

People who want to see the real thing will soon have another option. Plans for a Maritime Heritage Trail, long in the works at Biscayne, will likely come to fruition by the end of the year, Lanzendorf says. Mooring buoys will mark five wrecks on the park's eastern edge — four large steamers from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, as well as the double-masted Mandalay, a sailboat in the Windjammer Cruises fleet that sank in ten-foot-deep water in 1966. Waterproof cards will show site diagrams and historical information to guide divers and snorkelers through the wrecks.

After a day out on the bay, Lanzendorf turns the Boston Whaler around and heads for shore. Pelicans in V formation hover overhead, and a lone anhinga, suddenly finding itself in the boat's path, beats the water with its wings. One of the two 175-horsepower outboards sputters. Moments later, the overheat alarm sounds. Lanzendorf kills the ailing engine and cruises on half power, back over the site of the St. Lucie's demise. It is relatively close to shore, about ten minutes out, but largely unstudied.

According to written accounts, the St. Lucie — carrying construction equipment and workers to Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad — left Miami October 17, 1906, as storm clouds gathered. In the dark morning hours of the next day, hurricane gales out of the southwest ripped the boat apart and sent it down. Survivors struggled to find anything that would float. In the days that followed, more than 30 bodies washed up on nearby keys. While the steamer's hull was eventually raised and repaired, much of the ship's superstructure and untold personal effects of the 120 passengers and crew remained behind, scattered on the sandy bottom.

"We haven't gotten to it yet," Lanzendorf shouts, struggling to be heard against the wind.

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