A 1911 wreck off the Florida Keys
The 315-foot long steamship Hannah M. Bell was built in England in 1893. It primarily carried sugar, cotton, and other breakbulk cargo between Europe and the Americas. On 4 April 1911, while transiting from the US east coast to Vera Cruz, Mexico with a cargo of coal, it encountered heavy weather, grounded, and sank on the coral of Elbow Reef six miles off Key Largo, Florida. Some, but not all, of the cargo was liberated by wreckers. Wind, waves, and weather broke up the remaining cargo and hull and the wreck was soon forgotten in an area where wrecks were frequent. In 1920, the SS Quoque, operated by the US Shipping Board, grounded on the wreck of the Hannah M. Bell. The waters are reasonably well marked, with Carysfort Lighthouse (built in 1852) located about ten miles north and Alligator Reef Lighthouse (built in 1873) located about ten miles south. Regardless, the area seems to attract marine casualties, in part because ships headed south often hug the coast to avoid the effects of the Gulf Stream. Two significant wrecks in the vicinity are the SS Tonawanda (formerly the USS Arkansas), which sank on 28 March 1866, and the SS City of Washington, which sank on 10 July 1917. A few miles southwest is the former US Coast Guard cutter Duane, which as intentionally sunk in 120 feet of water off Molasses Reef on 27 November 1987. The identity of the 1911 wreck, though, was lost until unraveled through the hard work of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. Working with officials at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, they recovered artifacts and researched historic documents, finally putting an official name on the wreck that had been locally known only as “Mike’s Wreck”, named after a local diver who had popularized the site.