One city, many stories
By Kate A. Hallock, Jacksonville Historical Society
Jacksonville is a vast city—the largest incorporated city in landmass within the contiguous United States—and it’s also a complicated city, as Jacksonville Historical Society CEO Alan J. Bliss likes to say.
“It’s complicated, it’s authentic, and it has many stories,” he shares on the lecture circuit in any given week, visiting business and civic groups from early morning to evening and spreading the word about Jacksonville’s Bicentennial, an occasion which the citizens of Jacksonville are encouraged to commemorate, celebrate, and elevate during 2022.
Jacksonville’s story—and its 200-year timeline—is so big and, yes, so complicated, that you can almost select any couple of events or persons within the 20-decade span and find common threads a century apart. This month’s issue of Arbus shares another part of Jacksonville’s story in a timeline [pages 20–21] which spans the Civil War and the Great Fire of 1901. It was hard to choose a storyline from among the dozens of Jacksonville’s firsts and foundings during that span, but two stories, ironically bracketing this issue’s timeline, begged to be told.
The Tales of the Maple Leaf
During the Civil War, Jacksonville served as the Union Army’s Headquarter District of Florida, Department of the South, but that is not to imply the citizens were united in the cause for one side over the other.
The story begins on April 1, 1864, when the Maple Leaf, a transport steamer carrying Union soldiers and sympathizers, civilian passengers, and a few captured Confederate soldiers, steamed its way on the St. Johns River in the middle of the night from Palatka to Jacksonville and at 4:30 a.m. was torpedoed. The attack was carried out by Confederate Army Captain E. Pliny Bryan and Lieutenant Thomas E. Buckman of Jacksonville who devised the submerged torpedoes, or mines, by mixing gunpowder and chemicals in a dozen large kegs and sunk them in the river channel.
One day after the attack, the Union Army conducted a hearing about the loss of the Maple Leaf. Of the nine men who gave testimony, only one was a Black man, a river pilot who was likely a free man. His testimony:
“My name is Romeo Murray; at present I live in Jacksonville. I was raised near the mouth of the St. Johns River on Fort George Island. I am about forty-three years old. For sixteen years I have been acting as a pilot on the St. Johns River, and between that and Savannah and Charleston. I have piloted the steamer Carolina, Columbia, and St. Marys along the shore and between here and Palatka. I know the river between here and Palatka. Those steamers used to draw eight or nine feet. I was pilot of the Maple Leaf the night she was lost.” (National Archives)
Lt. Buckman was the father of Henry H. Buckman, after whom the Buckman Bridge was named. Son Buckman was an attorney and member of the Florida Legislature who became known for the Buckman Act of 1905, which reorganized higher education into three institutions, segregated by race and gender. Both father and son are buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
Leap forward more than a century to 1978, when Jacksonville dentist and certified scuba diver Keith V. Holland and others began extensive research to find the site of the Maple Leaf’s demise on the St. Johns River. After discovering the exact location off Mandarin Point in 1984, Holland and two Jacksonville attorneys, Robert Parrish and James Moseley, organized a company known as St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. (SJAEI) to research, investigate, and excavate the sunken steamboat.
To gain public interest in the excavation project, Holland’s treasure hunters presented a well-thought-out program at the Jacksonville Historical Society’s quarterly meeting on February 20, 1985, and soon drummed up enough support to petition for the rights to the Maple Leaf, a submerged government property on inland waterways.
Finally, in 1989, SJAEI was approved to explore and remove artifacts from the wreck. The group received funding and support from the state of Florida; the city of Jacksonville, which arranged for space to store and exhibit the artifacts at the Museum of Science and History (MOSH); and from Jacksonville citizens.