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Historic photo of the SS Tarpon
Photo courtesy of Underwater Archaeological Preserves, Florida Division of Historical Resources
Built in 1887 and christened Naugatuck, the iron-hulled twin screw steamship Tarpon served during the period when railroads began replacing steamships. Many steamship companies were losing money and as a result, the Naugatuck changed owners a couple of times before being renamed the Tarpon and acquired by the Pensacola, St. Andrews & Gulf Steamship Company, which commissioned Willis Barrow to be its captain. For more than 30 years, starting in 1903, Barrow and the Tarpon made weekly runs along the northern Gulf coast. It is estimated that Barrow made more than 1,700 trips on the Tarpon. By 1937, the Tarpon was considered to be one of the most reliable and dependable vessels operating along the Florida panhandle.

Model of the SS Tarpon
Photo courtesy of Capt. Keith Plaskett and the Florida Maritime Heritage Trail, Florida Division of Historical Resources

On August 30th of that year, the Tarpon left Mobile, Alabama, loaded with as much freight as possible. The vessel carried more than 200 tons of general cargo as well as 200 barrels of oil and 15 tons of fresh water. As a result, the freeboard (distance between the waterline and the top of the deck) was less than five inches. In the early morning hours of September 1st, the ship started to take in water as the seas steadily became more turbulent. The crew started to jettison cargo but as dawn approached, a gale overtook the vessel. In a last ditch effort, the first mate of the Tarpon steered the ship towards land in an attempt to run it aground before it sank, but the ship was already out of control. Captain Barrow was among the 18 of the 31 aboard that drowned. There was no radio on board to call for help.

Wreck of the SS Tarpon
Photo courtesy of Underwater Archaeological Preserves, Florida Division of Historical Resources
Although the Tarpon has begun to deteriorate, remains are still clearly visible on the sand and hardpan bottom. The wreck, approximately 160 feet long and 26 feet wide, was in relatively good condition until the early 1970s when a fierce storm in the Gulf of Mexico damaged the amidships and stern sections. Since then the bow has also collapsed. Located within a Florida Underwater Archaeological Preserve, the Tarpon is one of Bay County's oldest artificial reefs and is teaming with marine life.

The SS Tarpon is located 7.8 nautical miles offshore of Panama City on the Florida panhandle. The wreck is submerged in 95 ft. of water and situated parallel to the shoreline with the bow facing west. The shipwreck is located within a Florida Underwater Archaeological Preserve, and a laminated underwater guide is available from local dive shops. The preserve is open to the public year round, free of charge.

Florida's Shipwrecks: 300 Years of Maritime History features a Teaching with Historic Places online lesson plan, The Spanish Treasure Fleets of 1715 and 1733: Disasters Strike at Sea. This lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service's Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page.

[graphic] Florida Shipwrecks' Essays

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