USS Narcissus was launched in July 1863 in Albany, New York and purchased by the United States Navy under the name Mary Cook on September 23, 1863. The tugboat was then commissioned into the United States Navy in New York City on February 2, 1864. Narcissus was a wooden hulled screw tug with an inverted, direct acting, single overhead cylinder steam engine with a slide valve and independent cut off. Her hull measured 81’6” long with a beam of 18’9” and a depth of 8’. When loaded, her draft was 6’ and she reportedly reached speeds of 14 miles per hour, although her average speed was about 6 miles. Her single boiler had one furnace and she was originally armed with one 20 pounder Parrot rifle and 1 heavy 12 pounder.
In January 1864, Narcissus was sent from New York to New Orleans to report to Rear-Admiral David Farragut for duty in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. Narcissus served in operations in Mississippi Sound, New Orleans, Mobile Bay and Pensacola as a blockader, dispatch vessel, towboat and transporter of prisoners and captured vessels. Steam tugs were viable in the blockade because they were utilized for diverse tasks and proved cheaper than most steamers. In August 1864, Narcissus served near Fort Morgan during the Union victory at the battle of Mobile Bay. On December 7th of that same year, Narcissus while on picket duty at Dog River Bar, Mobile Bay, Narcissus she struck a torpedo while paying out her anchor line during a fierce storm. The torpedo caused an explosion that left a large hole in the starboard side of the hull amidships. Although the vessel sank in fifteen minutes, no lives were lost and all ammunition and arms were removed. On 28 December 1864, Narcissus was refloated and brought to the Pensacola Naval Yard for repairs where she remained until June 1865.
After repairs were completed, Narcissus returned to Mobile Bay, Alabama. In October 1865, Acting Rear Admiral Henry Knox Thatcher no longer needed the many vessels previously required for an active blockade of southern ports. Thatcher stated in communication that USS Narcissus and other screw tugs were ready to be sent north for sale. On January 1, 1866, USS Narcissus and USS Althea, both screw tugs, began their journey along the eastern shores of the Gulf of Mexico on their way to New York to be decommissioned and sold. Unfortunately, USS Narcissus was lost in a storm off Egmont Key, Florida on January 4, 1866.
According to personal communication about the deck logs of USS Althea, both Althea and Narcissus were caught in a storm off the coast of Tampa and their commanders decided to anchor outside the port and wait out the storm. Althea was briefly stuck on a sandbar while trying to anchor and after getting off the shoal the commander of the vessel, Acting Ensign W.F. Kilgore, decided it was too dangerous to attempt to anchor. At 6:15 pm on January 4, 1866 Narcissus burnt a No. 2 Coston Signal, which Althea returned at 6:30 pm with Coston Signal 48, yet received no response. At 7:00 pm Althea saw more signals from Narcissus, but could not understand them. Althea returned with Coston Signal 222, but received no more signals from Narcissus. The next morning Althea anchored off Egmont Key and noticed the beaches strewn with wreckage from USS Narcissus along with the body of one of the firemen and the papers of Acting Ensign Bradbury and Mate J. L. Hall. Althea stayed in Tampa for two more days to look for survivors, and, finding none, Althea continued on its journey to New York.
The exposed remains of the USS Narcissus are comprised of the engine, stern assembly with the shaft, shaft log and propeller still articulated, a pillar block and cap, and fragments of the boiler.
The engine is an inverted single cylinder type with direct action. It has a cast iron frame and has fallen over to port. The engine’s height when upright would have been 11’ 11” from the bottom of the frame to the cylinder cap. The stroke is 18”, with a 16” bore. The valve chest is located on the forward side of the cylinder with the steam inlet directly behind it on the starboard side. The cross head is in the down position at the bottom of the 18” slides. The connecting rod is broken below the cross head. The lower section of the rod is still articulated to the bell crank assembly on the shaft which has a diameter of 8”.
The bell crank assembly was positioned below the lower frame platform in a well created by the engine bed. This assembly is completely exposed by the engine’s current, fallen position. Forward of the bell crank, at the distal end of the shaft is a turning wheel with off-set counter weight. It is 24” in diameter, with a thickness of 2”. On the aft side of the engine the shaft passes through a two piece block, 15” in width the cap bolted into place to secure the shaft. The shaft is broken 9” out from the aftermost face of the block.
The stern assembly is comprised of the stern post, inner post, stern knee, two sections of deadwood, the keel, and the keel rider. The shaft, shaft log, propeller, shaft seal, and stuffing gland are likewise still articulated into the vessel fabric of this feature. The remains of copper alloy sheathing and the forward end of a skeg plate are affixed to this assembly. The stern assembly is located 9’8” aft of the engine and is heeled over to port. The shaft is broken just forward of the stuffing gland. The four bladed, iron propeller has two broken blades, one partially intact blade, and one blade completely buried.
The stern post has a sided dimension of 13” at the rabbet, with a molded value of 15”. The forward molded surface is directly fayed to the inner post to create the rising rabbet. The rabbet is incised at 2 ½ ” by 3 ½”. The inner post is sided at 12” and molded at 7”. The inner post tapers into the fayed seam for the rising rabbet. The heel of the inner post is fayed directly onto the upper molded surface of the keel rider. The heel of the stern post is scarphed into the keel/keel rider join. It is affixed with a bronze alloy fish plate. (The presence of sheathing prevented the precise recordation of this arrangement.)
The posts are supported by the stern knee and two sections of deadwood. Both pieces of dead wood are horizontal with beveled after surfaces fayed into the inner post. The dead wood and the horizontal arm of the stern knee are sided at 9”. The knee diminishes to 7” at the fayed seam along the top of the keel rider. The upper molded surface of the keel rider is 12” sided. The difference in these values creates the horizontal rabbet for the exterior hull planking. The keel rider is molded at 6”. The keel is also molded at 6” at this point in the vessel, and is sided at 12”. The concreted remains of the forward end of the skeg plate are fastened to the lower molded surface if the keel. All of these structural components are fasted with 1” diameter iron pins. Although no exterior planking remains were recorded, ½” by ½” square shank iron spikes were still present in the rising rabbet. The copper alloy sheathing was secured with ¼” copper tacks.
The shaft log is fitted into the forward molded surface of the inner post, above the rising arm of the stern knee. It is 12” in diameter and 6’2” in length. The forward end terminates in a double clamped, bolted stuffing gland. The 8” shaft within the log passes through the post assembly and a shaft seal on the outer molded surface of the stern post. A four bladed iron propeller, with a 24” diameter hub is keyed onto the shaft. The single preserved blade is square tipped, with a preserved length of 27”. The curved base of the blade spans the 21” length of the hub.
The boiler casualty that sank Narcissus completely destroyed the boiler. Scattered fragments litter the bottom, with the bed still articulated to the buried, lower hull. The best preserved pieces of the boiler exhibit spaced, double wall sections with 4” diameter fire tubes. A combing for a 12” scaling port is also present, slightly to starboard of the vessel centerline. Aft of these pieces are several fragment of the watch glass and relief valve assembly.
Morris III, John W., Gordon P. Watts, Jr., Casey Coy, and Michael Terrell
2007 Tampa Bay Historical Shipwreck Survey Final Report. Report to Bureau of Historic Preservation, Florida Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State, Tallahassee, Florida, from The Florida Aquarium, Tampa, FL.