THE QUEEN OF NASSAU: HOW ONE OF CANADA’S FIRST WARSHIPS ENDED UP OFF THE FLORIDA KEYS

Michael C. Barnette


READ ABOUT THIS WRECK IN SHIPWRECKS OF THE SUNSHINE STATE!

My first dive on the “Motorcycle Wreck,” as it is locally known, left a lasting impression on me. Splendidly intact and stunningly incorporated by the marine environment, the wreck was astounding. I was equally dumbfounded that the identity of this large vessel was unknown, and that the integrity of the wreck was so complete. Numerous artifacts lay where they fell from collapsing wooden decks, and a large debris field off the starboard side held other prizes that apparently had slid of the upper decks during the sinking event. The vessel possessed several very curious attributes, most notably the very high length-to-beam ratio and the ram bow. Confident that the wreck was very unique, I brought the site to the attention of managers at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. I also contacted Tane Casserley, a friend and maritime archaeologist, who I enlisted to help identify the vessel. Little did we know our research would turn up one of the more significant twentieth century shipwrecks off Florida.

Initially believing the vessel to be a U.S. Revenue Cutter, we poured through books and other available information. Unfortunately, while several of the vessels were similar to the “Motorcycle Wreck,” none matched her unique dimensions. Tane followed up the research by reviewing the numerous British and Canadian cutters. In early January 2002, he came across a picture that would lead to the eventual identification of the wreck that rests in 230 feet of water off Islamorada. Thumbing through numerous books, Tane found a picture of the C.G.S. Canada.

The C.G.S. (Canadian Government Ship) Canada was built for the Canadian government by the English shipyard of Vickers Sons and Maxim at Barrow-in-Furness in 1904. The Canada was 200 feet in length and 25 feet in beam, with two large triple expansion engines powering her twin screws at a top speed of 22 knots. Upon delivery, the C.G.S. Canada became the flagship of the Canadian Fisheries Protection Service and was the fastest vessel in the Canadian squadron. The vessel also had the distinction of carrying the smallest Marconi wireless telegraph office in the world.1 The Canada’s primary responsibility was the protection of Canadian fishing interests in the northwest Atlantic, though she conducted numerous other maritime duties. With this vessel Canada moved further towards the establishment of a formal navy. In fact, a January 28, 1907 memorandum from Osprey George Valentine Spain, the Commander of Marine Services in the Department of Marine and Fisheries, stated, “The Cruiser Canada which is named and armed in all respects as a man-of-war, was built in England and brought out in 1904; in 1905 she was sent on a training cruise to the West Indies, carrying a large number of young fishermen as recruits; this according to the late Minister’s idea, was proposed to the beginning of the Naval Militia. On the return of this ship from her instructional cruise, the men who had already been trained were distributed amongst the other ships; fresh men taken on; and instruction continued.”2

Since its discovery by Basque fishermen in the 1300s, George’s and Grand Banks has been a critical component of one of the most essential foreign trades conducted by Western Europe – cod. The productive fishing grounds off Canada brought hundreds of vessels from Europe that exploited the rich bounty of haddock, flounder, halibut, and the much-desired cod. In turn, European fishermen helped to settle Newfoundland and other areas of Canada, as well as significant portions of New England. Over the years, the expansive fishing grounds shrank as more fishing vessels arrived and spread out in the search for fish.

The earliest Canadian naval organization was created in 1870 by the Department of Marine and Fisheries to protect the nation's blossoming fishing industry during a dispute with the United States. The Fisheries Protection Service was developed in 1886 after further fishery disputes; the Grand Banks was a critical natural resource that Canada was intent on protecting. The C.G.S. Canada was armed with four Maxim guns that could hurl high explosive shells 12,000 feet and at a rate of 300 shots a minute.3 The “fish wars” between Canada and the United States kept the patrol vessels of the Fisheries Protection Service busy. Cruising out of her homeport of Halifax, Captain Knowlton captured several vessels that were fishing illegally in Canadian waters.

After becoming a country in 1867, Canada relied on the British Royal Navy for protection from foreign aggression. After a long internal debate, the Naval Service Act was passed on May 4, 1910, which established the Department of Naval Service and the Canadian Naval Forces. On August 29, 1911, King George V granted permission for the naming of the “Royal” Canadian Navy (R.C.N.). However, upon its inception, the R.C.N. had no formal training academy for new officers. As the Fisheries Protection Service had done in 1905, the R.C.N. also relied on the C.G.S. Canada as its primary training ship. Among the first class of ten cadets was Victor G. Brodeur, who would rise to flag rank by World War II, and Percy Walker Nelles, who would become chief of the Naval Staff from 1933 to 1943 and the most influential leader the R.C.N. would ever know.4 At this time, due to her extremely low freeboard, her forecastle was raised to more closely resemble the ship at the time of her sinking.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the Canada was transferred to the R.C.N. to serve as a patrol vessel. With a shortage of adequate vessels, she was desperately needed to help survey for mines and offer protection during the formation of troop convoys to England. Officially commissioned into the R.C.N. as the H.M.C.S. Canada on January 25, 1915, her armament was changed to two 12-pounders and two three-pounders. During her service with the R.C.N., her displacement was rated at 557 tons. After a five-year service, she returned to duty as a fisheries patrol cruiser in November of 1919. The following year she was offered for sale at a price of $25,000. Yet, there were no offers for the man-of-war. She spent several years laid up in port and neglected until her eventual sale to an American company in 1924.

The vessel was bought shortly thereafter by Barron Gift Collier, Sr., an important character in the development of Southwest Florida. Between 1921 and 1923, Collier purchased over 1.3 million acres of land, becoming, at the time, the largest landowner in the state. Enchanted with the southwest coast, Barron Collier built several luxury hotels and golf courses, one of the first and most prominent being the Useppa Inn near Fort Myers. Collier was also an avid outdoorsman who founded the Izaak Walton League. His efforts in developing the swampland along Southwest Florida eventually led to the construction of the Tamiami Trail, the road that linked Miami and Naples. Today, Collier County bears the name and legacy of Barron Collier.

While Collier was extremely successful with his real estate endeavors, his involvement with the C.G.S. Canada was anything but lucrative. Upon her purchase, the Canada was renamed the Queen of Nassau and she was put into service between Miami and Nassau, Bahamas. However, the ship lacked adequate accommodations for a comfortable overnight cruise to the islands, and the service lost favor with prospective passengers. In March 1925, the steamer found herself sitting idle in Biscayne Bay, an internment that would stretch for almost 18 months. During that time, First Mate J.J. Borden served as her sole caretaker.

In late June 1926 it was reported that the Queen of Nassau was being sold to Mexican interests for use on a route between New Orleans and Tampico. After preliminary negotiations, the vessel was to be transferred to Tampa for final inspection and purchase; apparently, both Collier and the Mexican buyer had representatives in Tampa. After coaling in Miami, the rusting steamer, long past her prime, slowly steamed south on the evening of Wednesday, June 30.

However, the ship was badly in need of attention. Her engines were in poor shape, and the boilers could scarcely manage to produce sufficient steam pressure to keep her underway. Captain Peter Songdahl anchored south of Miami on Wednesday night in order to work on the boilers. On Thursday morning, he again pointed the Queen of Nassau south towards the Florida Keys. Barely making headway, Captain Songdahl anchored for a second time off Alligator Reef early on the morning of July 2 to allow his engineers to address the situation in the engine room. From 3:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. she remained at anchor. During that time, a minor seepage into the bilge was reported. The crew completed temporary repairs to the boilers, raised anchor, and steamed onward, albeit very slowly, due to the compromised boiler pressure.

At approximately 5:45 p.m. a fireman noticed rising water through the floor of the bunkers and sounded the alarm that the ship was leaking. The Queen of Nassau carried two standard pumps and one additional, more powerful pump, all of which were started immediately. While the crew inspected the ship in order to find the source of the leak, the pumps appeared to stem the inrush of water. Unfortunately, the introduction of the water cooled the boilers to the point that steam pressure steadily dropped.

With the loss of power, the pumps were unable to keep up with the rising water. One fireman trudged out of the water to report the leak was increasing and upon his return the water was above his knees. Nothing prevented the sea from rushing into the ship. With the sinking of the ship inevitable, Captain Songdahl ordered the helmsman to turn south for deep water. At the time he was approximately six miles off Lower Matecumbe Key and had insufficient steam to run his ship aground. He opted for deep water in order to avoid presenting a menace to navigation. He directed the steward to place provisions into a lifeboat and for it to be swung out and readied for deployment.

The water in the engine room continued to rise. The men in the engine room apparently expected the boilers to explode, but still remained at their posts. One of the coal passers, 17-year old Clifford Osborne stated, “Sure, I expected to get blowed [sic] up, but I wasn’t ordered to leave, so I didn’t.”5 While the water cooled the boilers, the temperature of the water leaking into the engine room rose to the point where it was unbearable. Steam filled the lower spaces. Shortly before 7:00 p.m., the pumps completely failed as the boiler fires were extinguished. The Queen of Nassau was sinking.

The steamer lost headway and soon rocked sluggishly to a light swell. The 18-man crew boarded the single lifeboat and moved away from their ship, now settling distinctly by the stern. The crew rowed away from the hull but stayed on scene to watch the ship’s final moments. As water filled the interior, the ship sank stern first. Her white hull contrasted distinctly against the increasing gray of the approaching night. The bow slowly raised perpendicular to the surface of the sea, her war-like ram rising 25 feet into the air, and slowly lurched over to starboard. Machinery began breaking loose in the interior, producing dreadful sounds that represented the death throes of the vessel. Captain Songdahl succinctly described the final moments, stating, “We left her at 7 o’clock. I took out my watch. Exactly eight minutes later, the ship standing almost straight up in the water, her boilers exploded. The forward half of her crumpled up. She was gone.”6

The crew rowed for shore, seven miles distant. Exhausted from struggling over the crippled boilers and fighting the flooding water, the crew reached shore at 9:30 p.m. The haggard men dragged themselves up the embankment of the Florida East Coast Railroad and collapsed. However, the men were prevented from getting a good night’s rest. Assistant Engineer L.J. Longhurst described the night, “We were almost eaten by those mosquitoes. It was hell. I’d rather die than fight those mosquitoes again.”7

The following morning the men flagged down F.E.C. freight train No. 131 and hitched a ride back to Miami. While many of the crew joked about the lack of tragedy or real drama during the prior evening, the impact of the sinking struck First Mate Borden a bit more deeply. Borden was a bit more intimate with the Queen of Nassau, after spending 18 months alone with her as the ship’s caretaker in Biscayne Bay. “She was a daisy, a daisy and a lady,” Borden said. “I sure felt bad when she went down. I guess I’d have cried, if I hadn’t been ashamed. She…she….”8

The Queen of Nassau was reported to have sunk 70 miles south of Miami, in 35 fathoms of water off Islamorada. While the source of the leak was never established, Captain Songdahl speculated that the pounding of the powerful engines had worked the hull plating loose. That, coupled with the years of neglect and slow rusting of the ship perhaps compromised the integrity of her hull. However, it is interesting to note that although Captain Songdahl stated that the boilers exploded, there is no indication of any structural damage to the hull as he described. Further, at the point when the boilers supposedly exploded, they had already been extinguished from the rising water and would have been completely submerged by the time the bow rose vertical before her final plunge. Regardless, the Queen of Nassau, formerly the Canadian gunboat C.G.S. Canada, soon faded into history.

While the wreck has been immersed for over 75 years, she is very much intact. As mentioned previously, the crew reported the boilers exploding in one report, yet there is no visible damage to the hull to support that account. However, there is notable damage to the running gear and the stern. The starboard shaft and screw are missing, while the port side screw is missing two blades. The stern itself is damaged, with the rudder pushed up into the hull, most likely the result of the ship crashing stern-first into the seabed, as described by the Queen of Nassau’s crew. Additionally, her masts have collapsed and the funnel is absent.

The amidships of the wreck appears to be a saloon-type area, the wood deck having disintegrated long ago. Any artifacts have dropped down into the lower decks, which are heavily burdened with sediment. Divers can easily enter the main deck structure and into the forecastle. However, access to the engine room and lower decks are prevented due to the massive sediment load. As the ship sunk and twisted to starboard, it created a debris field off the starboard side of the ship. Two large bronze screws can be found lying partially buried in the bottom. One is largely exposed with two blades and shaft hole remaining above the sediment. The other has one blade exposed and is a short distance away. These may possibly be spare screws stored on the aft deck that may have slipped off during the sinking event, as the heavily encrusted portside screw still in place appears to be steel. China and other artifacts from the upper decks can also be found partially buried in the sediment.

The wreck is thickly encrusted with razor-sharp oysters, as well as sponges, corals, and other invertebrate growth. A fine-sediment bottom that is easily suspended, reducing visibility in a milky haze, dominates the area. The wreck supports a wide variety of marine life, including copious amounts of snapper and grouper. Most notably, scalloped hammerheads frequently school above the wreck, creating a unique viewing treat during decompression.

ENDNOTES:

1 Nova Scotian and Weekender; July 5, 1907.
2 McKee, Fraser M. 1982. Princes Three. R.C.N. in Retrospect, 1910-1968. James A. Boutalier, editor. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver. p. 17.
3 Nova Scotian and Weekender; July 5, 1907.
4 Milner, Marc. 1999. Canada’s Navy: The First Century. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. p. 21.
5 Miami Daily News and Metropolis; July 4, 1926.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.