The City of Washington

Site Description

The City of Washington is located approximately six miles off Key Largo, Florida between buoys seven and eight in the northern region of The Elbow Reef, approximately 500 yards from the Elbow Reef Tower.

Today, the City of Washington is broken up into numerous pieces which are scattered along the ocean floor. Prominent identifying features of the site include a single column of four propeller shaft bearings as well as the ladder leading to the stern of the wreck. The bow and upper half of the vessel have been either destroyed in the wrecking event or salvaged.

The City of Washington is home to many organisms such as the yellow tail snapper, barracuda, parrot fish and various corals. The City of Washington is also well-known for green morays. The wreck is popular to local dive instructors as a training site since currents are usually mild and the maximum depth of the wreckage is only 25 feet.

Historical Background

Launching Event

The City of Washington was launched on August 30, 1877 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Several dignitaries who were in Pennsylvania for an International Exhibition attended the event: Governors Anthony, of Kansas; Young, of Ohio; Garber, of Nebraska; Porter, of Tennessee; Hartranft, of Pennsylvania; Wade Hampton, of South Carolina; Prescott, of New Hampshire; Stone, of Mississippi; Bedle, of New Jersey; Cochrane, of Delaware; Axtell, of New Mexico; Drew, of Florida; Banzant, of Rhode Island; and many other prominent people. A political presence of such size brought in people from miles around, including the entire 1,900-man staff of John Roach and Sons, the builders of this new iron steamship.

The City of Washington was launched at high tide, carrying the Governor of Pennsylvania accompanied by Mrs. John S. Morton. On sea it was observed by the vessel, City of Macon, carrying John Roach, his three sons, the visiting Governors and their party. The City of Macon was completed by RoachÕs Shipyard on June 23, 1877.

Roach's Shipyard

Roach's Shipyard was founded in 1859 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Operated by John Roach and Sons, the shipyard specialized in the repairing and building of various ships including: Passenger Ferry boats, Man o'wars, Monitors, Patrol boats, Steamships, and Colliers. From 1872 to 1881 they manufactured 67 vessels, and employed a staff of 1,900 persons.

Roach's Shipyard was commissioned to build two vessels for Alexandre & Sons, The City of Washington in 1877 and The City of Alexandria in 1879. Other noted private commissions include the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., Erie Railroad Co., Reading Railroad Co., and the Old Dominion Steamship Co. Additionally, for the United States Government, Roach's Shipyard repaired seven and built two Monitor class vessels and built two Man O' Wars, as well as a Patrol boat completed for the Spanish Government ( Roach's Shipyard Register of Contracts). New York and Cuba Mail and Steamship Company

For the Cuban trade business in the late 1870s, two major companies competed -- Alexandre & Sons and the Ward Line. Roach's Shipyard was the main shipbuilder for the Ward Line. Over the years, Roach's Shipyard became interested in Cuban trade. Using relations with the Ward Line, in 1881 they merged to form the New York and Cuba Mail and Steamship Company. This new company was formed and operated by James E. Ward, Henry P. Booth, William T. Hughes and John Roach.

The new company gained enough business over the next few years to buy all holdings of Alexandre & Sons in 1888. This business maneuver significantly reduced their competition as the takeover included the transfer of ownership of Alexandre & Son's ships including the City of Alexandria, City of Washington, City of Columbia, Manhattan and the Puebla.


Commissioned by Alexandre & Sons, The City of Washington was specialized in passenger transport and cargo trade. She was assigned to the routes of Havana, Cuba; Campeche, Mexico; and Progreso, Panama. According to the Chester Daily Times in 1877, "she can accommodate 100 first-class passengers, with 75 state rooms, besides accommodations for officers, crew and 250 steerage passengers."


In 1877, the City of Washington represented a hybrid of shipbuilding technology as she retained a double mast sailing design while also powered by two high performance compound surface condensing engines. These engines and the various pumps for air, circular, feed and bilge were powered by twin cylindrical boilers, each 23 feet long and 9 feet in radius yielding a working pressure of 90 pounds.

She was refitted between July 20 and October 12 in 1889 with a triple expansion steam engine with a horse power of 2,750. According to Tom Scott, with her newly constructed power source the City of Washington was able to reduce her sailing time dramatically (Scott 1994). In August of 1890, she reportedly docked in New York City after only a 73-hour voyage from Havana, Cuba; a remarkable achievement for that day and age.

Discussion of Ownership

Alexandre & Son's and the Ward Line were the two most prominent and competitive companies specializing in Cuban naval trade. Alexandre & Sons commissioned the City of Washington and the City of Alexandria from Roach's Shipyard. Roach's Shipyard and Ward Line had a long standing business relationship which led to a merger between the two companies in 1881 forming the New York and Cuba Mail and Steamship Co. The formation of this company led to their takeover of Alexandre & Sons in 1888. This transaction included the transfer of ownership of the City of Washington to the New York and Cuba Mail and Steamship Co. This ownership lasted for 23 years.

In 1911, after being retired for three years in Brooklyn, New York, the City of Washington was purchased by E.F. Luckenbach of New York. Luckenbach removed her superstructure and machinery, converting her into a coal transporting barge. These duties lasted for six years, until she wrecked in 1917.

Involvement in Spanish-American War

The historical significance of the City of Washington surpasses its technological advancements due to her involvement in the Spanish-American War. In addition to being a part of the war, she witnessed and also was an aid to the key event that sparked the beginning of the war: the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine.

Although the explosion of the Maine was the final event leading to the Spanish-American War, there are other circumstances which developed before the explosion of the Maine that should be noted. The United States had foreign interests in Cuba in the form of sugar and tobacco. Spain enforced high taxes on sugar and tobacco, and oppressed Cubans in the form of concentration camps. These acts hurt the Cubans, and United States investments in Cuba.

When the insurrection of Cuba occurred in 1895, the United States took actions to help the Cubans with the ulterior motive of establishing a beneficial economic foothold within Cuba. In 1896, the U.S. Congress offered aid to Spain by forming an independent Cuba, which Spain rejected. In 1897, McKinley was elected President of the United States, knowing war with Spain was inevitable. In 1898, two occurrences within a week of each other provoked the nation to support a war with Spain. On February 9, 1898, the De Lome Letter was published in various papers. In this letter, Enrique de Lome, Spanish Minister of the U.S., wrote to a friend in Cuba labeling President McKinley "weak and a bidder of the admiration of the crowd." This offended the President and the nation.

Less then a week later, on February 15, the Maine exploded while harbored in Havana to protect American interests. The explosion was declared, in an article of the Herald by Walter Scott Meriwether, to be caused by a submarine mine. However, no documented proof exists of the submarine mine. Shouting the slogan "Remember the Maine," Congress assigned $50,000,000 to national defense in preparation for war. On April 24, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain.

The night the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor (February 15, 1898), the City of Washington was also moored in Havana Harbor. Moored in close proximity to the Maine, the City of Washington suffered injury to her awnings, raise and deck houses by flying debris. Immediately after the explosion, finding the Maine a disaster, the crew of the City of Washington went to aid the Maine. The first round of emergency boats lowered were destroyed by flying shrapnel. After the second round of boats reached the water, the City of Washington, and the Spanish cruiser, Alfonso XII assisted in the rescue of the crew of the Maine. The City of Washington formed a makeshift hospital from their dining salon. Even with the heroic efforts of the City of Washington and Alfonso XII, 260 officers and men were lost in this disaster.

After the explosion many investigations were carried out on the cause of the explosion of the Maine, including a court investigation in 1911. It was documented from Captain Sigsbee, captain of the Maine, that all was right, including coal, magazines, electric lights, temperatures, etc. on the night the Maine exploded. It is also documented that there was high security when visitors were allowed aboard. These reports and investigations all indicate there was no internal cause for the explosion. However, it is still debated today as to what caused the Maine to explode.

The City of Washington's involvement in war efforts against Spain did not end with this event. During the course of the Spanish-American War, the City of Washington was used as a transport ship, carrying troops to wage war against the Spaniards.

After the war, the City of Washington resumed regular duties under New York and Cuba Mail and Steamship Co., this time specializing in ferrying passengers from New York to Cuba until her retirement in 1908.

The Wrecking Event

On route from Norfolk, Virginia to Havana, Cuba, traveling with the barge Seneca, and led by the tugboat Luckenbach #4, the City of Washington ran aground on The Elbow Reef of the Florida Keys on July 10, 1917.

According to Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company's records, Luckenbach #4 and Seneca were refloated on July 15, although they recorded, "The City of Washington broke up...and was a total loss in (a) few minutes." The City of Washington was being towed as a barge at the time of its sinking, and quickly broke up on the shallow reef. The date of its loss was July 10, 1917.

Archaeological Value

While the City of Washington wreck is concentrated, various hull remains are scattered over a wide area (Appendix C). Major sections of hull plating with attached I-beam frames can be seen in the midships area on the port and starboard sites. Other smaller hull sections are more widely dispersed. Several hull plates have portholes. The debris field is contained in a radius of about 140 feet from the main axis of the ship. Other scattered features such as bollards, a chock, ring gears, deck rail assembly, propeller shaft log and bilge pump have been identified within the site area. Other components may lie buried in the sand bottom.

The vicissitudes of time have acted to reduce the City of Washington's hull to perhaps one-fifth of its former height. Whereas it originally attained a hull depth of 19 feet 2 inches, only about 3 feet of hull can now be measured amidships. Originally she had three decks and six watertight bulkheads. Now only the fragmentary lowest deck can be seen. The bow is the least intact hull section, with the cutwater area completely absent.

Wreck Features

The City of Washington wreck site is approximately 325 feet long, and contains mostly the lower bilge-section of the steel hull. While the engine, boilers, drive shaft and propeller are missing, the propulsion system's imprint can still be visualized. The engine mount plate in still affixed to the keelson, and four of the five pillow blocks are in place. The center one has been torn loose and sits just outside the starboard, stern end of the hull. The City of Washington's engine was situated on a rectangular plate measuring five feet by six feet. The bearing blocks and drive train were protected by an upright frame of curved metal, the remnants of which can still be seen on mount #3. These shaft pillow blocks are spaced at an average of 16 feet apart.

The City of Washington's hull structure can be followed for most of its contour, although several large gaps are present. The bow section, however, is badly damaged. On the port bow, large hull plates and supporting frames are twisted inward toward the keel. This is probably evidence of the force of the impact with the reef, and consistent with reports of her rapid demise.

The ship's massive iron knees form an impressive display. They connected the first deck to the upright and bottom hull plates. They are generally present and in good condition. The shape and configuration of the hull can be projected from them, even though the hull plates are detached.

In preparation of a site plan for the City of Washington, a number of archaeological features were identified. This was surprising given the overall reduction of the hull to a fragmentary condition and the fact that she was in service as a towed barge at the time of her loss. Significant identified features include:

Half Gear -- located in the port bow area, this feature was probably used to lift cargo into the vessel as part of a windlass assembly. It measures 3.0 feet in diameter and has an outer ring of teeth.

Other features of note include hull plate sections with portholes, a top rail with deck rigging holes, the stern rail assembly, and a disarticulated bollard in the stern area.
Applying the National Register Criteria

This report takes the position that the City of Washington shipwreck is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and should be considered a significant maritime archaeological resource. The reasons for arriving at this evaluation are:

Biological Value

Time constrains of field surveys precluded the comprehensive collection of biological data. However, several specific areas were selected based on their representative properties of the biological predominance of the site, and based on their relationship to the major archaeological features. Fourteen individual monitoring stations consisting of the predominant hard and soft corals were established (see Appendix C). The stations will serve as a baseline for future in-depth research and monitoring. One biological monitoring station is Mount #3, where several hard and soft corals and sponges have been identified. The subsequent growth of these colonies, and any new communities that attach to the substrate, can now be tracked.

For nearly eighty years, the City has provided the hard, artificial substrate for a developing artificial reef community. Millepora alcicornis, or Branching Fire Coral, comprised the predominant hard coral species documented. Soft corals included Gorgonia ventalina, or the Common Sea Fan. Many encrusting corals can be found directly attached to the engine mounts. A total of 39 hard coral species and 34 soft coral species were recorded (Appendix B, Table 1).

These observations of extensive of coral colonization, as well as the shoals of a diversity of fish species found in and around the wreck, support the interpretation of the City of Washington as an artificial reef. Numerous invertebrate and fish species which were recorded during Indiana University field investigations (Appendix C).

Although observations to date are qualitative, each monitoring station can be revisited for detailed quantitative analysis which will build on current data. A complete inventory and analysis of fishes and invertebrates will need to be conducted as well to begin to understand the magnitude of the ecosystem of the City of Washington.

The City of Washington, after 40 years of service, certainly will contribute a perspective into history as part of the Shipwreck Trail. Add to this the study and monitoring of the complex ecology which has evolved on this 80-year-old substrate, and the City of Washington -- as any submerged resource could be-- will provide a means for exploring and understanding the siteÕs archaeological and biological significance.

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Last updated: 22 October 2001
Copyright 1998, The Trustees of Indiana University