Extraordinary tale of personal quest

Extraordinary tale of personal quest

Mandarin Museum to celebrate 150th anniversary of shipwreck –

Next month residents of Jacksonville will have an opportunity to see an important part of its history up close. The Mandarin Museum will host a nine-month long exhibit of Civil War artifacts brought up from the depths of the St. Johns River – by a local dentist.

Little did Dr. Keith Holland know, but learning how to scuba dive as a hobby would lead to a decades-long personal quest and the discovery of what is believed to be the most
significant collection of Civil War era cultural relics in history.

In 1977, Dr. Holland, now a dentist with a practice in the Fairfax neighborhood, earned his scuba diving certification but had become bored exploring underwater springs. He began researching shipwrecks and learned about a vessel that went down in Myrtle Beach, SC.

Lee Manley, Keith Holland, Hugh McIlwain, Larry Tipping, John Pugliese

Lee Manley, Keith Holland, Hugh McIlwain, Larry Tipping, John Pugliese

“I was nervous. It was my first ocean dive,” Holland recalled. But his stress soon turned to excitement when something caught his eye, a man-made object that appeared to be a beer keg tap. “I loved the thrill [of the discovery],” he added. “And I decided to find a wreck in Florida near Jacksonville.”

When he wasn’t working, Holland spent his time researching Jacksonville history and compiling a list of 19th century shipwrecks in the area. He learned of the Maple Leaf, an Army transport ship during the Civil War that sunk after hitting an underground mine off Mandarin Point. Frustrated with the lack of information available on the Maple Leaf, he hired a researcher at the U.S. National Archives. Since the Internet wasn’t available commercially at the time, it was a lengthy and often frustrating process having to communicate through phone calls and letters, but Holland eventually found what he was looking for.

According to government records, a contractor removed the wreckage as it was a danger to boaters and constricted the flow of water, but Holland wasn’t buying it. Based on his research and knowledge of the area, he believed a significant portion of the ship remained intact at the bottom of the river. In 1984 he and his team located the remains of the hull of the Maple Leaf 12 miles off Mandarin Point entrenched in the soft under bed, 24 feet below the surface.

The fact that the ship’s remainMapleLeaf_02s were so encased in mud – coupled the low visibility in the river – led many to believe the wreckage has been removed. While the location in which the ship sat made it difficult to find, but Holland said the “anaerobic environment” actually preserved the ship’s remnants and the items found within.

In addition to military equipment from three U.S. Army Infantry regiments, the Maple Leaf wreckage contained thousands of personal possessions of its soldiers, including eyeglasses, pocket watches, smoking pipes, musical instruments and personal care items like toothbrushes and combs. Also found on board were a variety of household items such as dishes and candlestick holders believed to have been looted from Confederate homes.

The discovery of these personal artifacts has been heralded by historians as the most significant collection of Civil War-era cultural relics in history. More than just cannons, swords and uniforms, the treasure trove of items gives a glimpse into the personal lives of the soldiers: what they thought about, what they cared about, what they valued when they weren’t fighting in the war.

For Holland, the experience of uncovering a piece of history that seemingly no one believed even existed was “life changing” and, he said, has made him a better person. But his self-described obsession withMapleLeaf_01 finding the Maple Leaf proved to be more than just a personal journey: The Maple Leaf site received National Landmark status.
On a more personal note, it gave credence to something in his own life. “My friends always thought I was eccentric,” he laughed. “This [experience] just proved it.”

The April 4 & 5 Grand Opening of a totally new Maple Leaf exhibit at the Mandarin Museum will feature information and rarely seen artifacts recovered from the ship (on loan from the State Archives of Florida). Dr. Holland will be present these two days to talk to visitors. The special exhibit will remain on display at Mandarin Museum from Apr. 4 until Dec. 31 during museum hours. For information about either event and to check museum hours visit mandarinmuseum.net, call (904) 268-0784 or email [email protected]

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