Hannah M. Bell

Diver swimming over the flattened remains of a large iron shipwreck
Archaeologist examining the steamship's metal framing. Photo: Matt Lawrence/NOAA

The steamship Hannah M. Bell was built in Stockton-On-Tees, England by Ropner and Sons Ltd. Launched on March 20, 1893, the ship was 315-feet long with a breadth of 40.5 feet. It had two decks and a 23-foot depth of hold. The vessel was equipped with two triple-expansion engines manufactured by Blair and Co. Ltd. The boilers working at 160 lbs. of pressure generated 1,000 horsepower.


Hannah M. Bell made frequent transatlantic trips carrying bulk cargo between European ports, the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts, Caribbean, and South American ports. The ship often stopped in Norfolk or Newport News, Virginia to fill its coal bunkers or load a coal cargo. Hannah M. Bell carried cotton from Pensacola to Venice, Italy, sugar from Cuba to Boston, and naval stores from Pensacola, Florida to Hamburg, Germany, Liverpool and Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Black and white photo of a steamship
Historical image of the steamship Hannah M. Bell. Photo: Harold Appleyard, York Collection, Shipping and Shipbuilding Research Trust

After crossing the Atlantic Ocean on its final voyage, the steamship stopped in Newport News to load coal for the journey to Vera Cruz, Mexico. On April 4th 1911 while traveling past the Upper Florida Keys, bad weather grounded the steamer on Elbow Reef. The U.S. Revenue Cutter Forward set out from Key West to lend assistance, but by the time the Forward, 18 feet of water had intruded into the vessel and the engine room was flooded. By April 7th, 1911, local wreckers felt that the ship could not be refloated and abandoned salvage efforts.


Archaeologists characterized the shipwreck site at Elbow Reef in 20 feet of water as the remains of a large iron or steel-hulled steamship measuring approximately 300 feet long. Its lower hull and portions of its port side were sufficiently extant to indicate the vessel had at least two decks.

Metal shipwreck structure with many soft corals growing on it
The portside of Hannah M. Bell's wreckage. Photo: Matt Lawrence/NOAA

Its structure was assembled with rivets and ferrous framing in a variety of shapes including "T" and "I" cross sections with rounded edges. The shipwreck lies on a southwest to northeast longitudinal axis with its bow at the southwest end. Its bow was easily identified as such by the 23-foot long cutwater that had collapsed towards the vessel's port side.

As compared to the extant yet collapsed bow structure, the vessel's stern lacked diagnostic material such as a rudder, skeg, transom or other features normally found at a vessel's stern. The stern hull plating was fragmented into small and largely disarticulated sections likely as a result of extensive salvage of its machinery. In the sternmost third of the ship, variations in the framing pattern revealed areas where heavy boiler and machinery components were housed along with poured cement ballast. The framing pattern also revealed support structures for twin propeller shafts in the stern. The site lies between 15 to 25 feet of water on the outer reef where visibility is usually excellent. Diving With A Purpose is a nonprofit that partnered with sanctuary staff to map this shipwreck over three field sessions between 2012 and 2015.

Site Map

Archaeological drawing of a shipwreck
Hannah M. Bell archaeological site map. Credit: Diving With a Purpose/NOAA