Maple Leaf divers visit artifacts in Tallahassee

Maple Leaf divers visit  artifacts in Tallahassee
The Maple Leaf Divers in 1984: Lee Manley, Keith Holland, Hugh McIlwain, Larry Tipping, John Pugliese

No matter what else they have done, a few Jacksonville men will most certainly always be known locally as “the Maple Leaf divers,” thanks to their exploits 35 years ago when they recovered thousands of Civil War artifacts from a watery grave in the St. Johns River off Mandarin Point. Twenty-four years later they were again able to look at the buried treasure, this time in Florida’s state capital.

It began in 1984 when Dr. Keith Holland, a dentist and resident of Ortega Forest, unleashed his interest in diving on a spot in the river where the Maple Leaf, a Civil War Union steamship, was torpedoed and sunk, along with her cargo in 1865. 

Accompanied by Lee Manley, Steve Michaelis, Mike Dupes, Paul Kramer, Bobby Lunsford and Larry Tipping, Holland spent nearly 10 years locating the wreckage and recovering about one-tenth of 1% of its cargo, some 6,500 items including musical instruments, toothbrushes, mirrors, shoes and boots, chinaware, pipes, etc., found in a U-shaped portion of the hull that Holland described as an “intact time capsule.”

Five of the original Maple Leaf divers at the archives in Tallahassee; front: Dr. Keith Holland and Steve Michaelis; back, Bobby Lunsford, Mike Dupes and Larry Tipping
Five of the original Maple Leaf divers at the archives in Tallahassee; front: Dr. Keith Holland and Steve Michaelis; back, Bobby Lunsford, Mike Dupes and Larry Tipping

Each of the volunteer divers logged over 300 hours working on and inside of Maple Leaf, said Holland. “There is absolutely no visibility on or inside the shipwreck, but no diving accident occurred. I am immensely proud of their underwater work and safety record.” 

The discovery was so significant the site was designated a national historical landmark in 1994 and, if protected and preserved well, would be open for future excavation. Remains of the ship and the other 99.9% of its cargo still rest about 20 feet down on the muddy bottom of the St. Johns River.

On April 19, the divers, along with representatives from the Duval and Putnam County school districts, aides from three state legislators, a staff member of the Mandarin Museum and others, took a field trip to Tallahassee to see the artifacts in protective storage at the State of Florida’s Collections & Conservation Division of Archaeology. 

Pieces of a 150-year-old-plus musical instrument found in the Maple Leaf
Pieces of a 150-year-old-plus musical instrument found in the Maple Leaf

The recent field trip was arranged by Katherine “Khaki” Hager, Mandarin Middle School World History teacher and Ortega Forest resident, who has taken a special interest in leading a grass roots effort to incorporate the ship and its artifacts in a museum. She and Holland had previously met with Congressman John Rutherford in 2018 to see how the Maple Leaf might fit with local plans to develop the Shipyards property on the Northbank. 

“Dr. Holland and I had arranged for a 15-passenger van through my son, Carrison, who works for Enterprise. My husband, David, was the designated driver,” said Hager. “Our group left at 8 a.m., spent two hours at the conservatory, and returned to Jacksonville by 4 p.m. It was fun watching the field trip come together after months of planning. I especially enjoyed everyone’s reactions as they viewed the Maple Leaf artifacts.

“For me, the most fascinating artifact from the State of Florida Maple Leaf collection was the violin,” said Hager. “I couldn’t help but wonder if someone was playing it when the ship hit the Confederate mine on the night of April 1, 1864.”

Some of the artifacts are on loan to the Mandarin Museum, which reprinted Holland’s book, “Maple Leaf – An Extraordinary American Civil War Ship-wreck,” for the 150th anniversary of the wreck in 2014.

Members of the entourage who went on a field trip to see the Maple Leaf artifacts in protective storage.
Members of the entourage who went on a field trip to see the Maple Leaf artifacts in protective storage.

“We have at least 70 items, a model of the ship, paintings, the diver’s gear, and much more,” said Sandy Arpen, Mandarin Museum board president. “If you want to know about the Maple Leaf, this is where it’s happening.”

Holland and Hager hope this trip is the beginning of a renewed awareness of the Maple Leaf.

“We’re going to do everything we can to educate students and people of all ages about Maple Leaf. There is not another site like it anywhere in the world. We cannot let Maple Leaf just drift back into obscurity,” said Holland.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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