Marker 39 Wreck

School of fish swimming about the coral covered remains of the shipwreck parts sticking up through the seafloor
Photo: Brenda Altmeier/NOAA

The Marker 39 Wreck has as yet to be identified. The wooden shipwreck is situated near an area known as "The Triangles," in Hawk Channel, offshore of Marker 39 near Key Largo, Florida. The wreck rests in 15 to 20 feet of water surrounded by turtle and manatee seagrass patches. Visibility at the site depends on weather, winds, and tides, but it is generally a little murky. Whether this site represents a sailing vessel, steamship, or unpowered barge has not been conclusively determined, but investigators currently hypothesize it was a barge due to its heavily-built, flat-bottomed hull and lack of rigging or engine-related artifacts.


Postcard depicting people and water tanks on a barge
Postcard of a barge used to carry freshwater for construction of the Overseas Railroad. Image: Monroe County Public Library

Likely in the late 19th or early 20th century, a heavily-built, flat-bottomed vessel sank in Hawk Channel near Tavernier. The wreck site is close to Marker 39, a shallow location that has been marked as a hazard on navigation charts since 1863. Barges were used extensively in the construction of the Overseas Railroad, and are shown in a wide variety of photos from that construction project. Historical photos showing barge cargos include rock, fresh water tanks, gasoline, and railroad ties. Barges were also modified or specifically built for use as dredges, cement mixers, and even houseboats. If it was contemporaneous, the Marker 39 Wreck would have been useful in hauling the many types of materials needed to construct the Overseas Railroad.

Fish swarm around coral covered shipwreck remains
Heavily encrusted wreckage shelters beautiful marine life. Photo: Matthew Lawrence/NOAA

Although most of the vertical structure is lost, a significant portion of the outer hull, floors, and ceiling planking remain. There is no apparent evidence indicating fire damage, suggesting foundering or stranding as a more likely cause of loss. The Marker 39 Wreck was probably not an abandoned vessel, since these tend to be left in areas where they will not be hazards to navigation. Such a large wreck in less than 20 feet of water would have posed a serious danger to mariners. Cargo and any valuable machinery were most likely salvaged after the wrecking event. Substantial amounts of coal throughout the site most likely constituted the vessel's cargo.


Diver taking notes about a shipwreck
Archaeologist documenting the Marker 39 Wreck. Photo: Brenda Altmeier/NOAA

The site consists of the wooden lower hull of a heavily-built seagoing vessel that collapsed, flattened, and eroded on the seabed. It is covered with a dense growth of soft and hard corals, and associated resident and pelagic fish. The wreck's axis runs in a northwest to southeast direction and stretches 150 feet in length with exposed portions a maximum of 20 feet wide, although the outer sections appear to be buried. Several iron pipes of two different diameters lie on the upper surface of the hull, as well as a large number of heavy iron fasteners that have become detached from the structure. A line of long iron bolts are embedded upright in the timbers running longitudinally on the west side. This fastening pattern suggests an angular flat-sided hull shape consistent with barge construction.

(Price et al., 2009)

Site Map

Archaeological drawing of the shipwreck
Marker 39 Wreck site map. Credit: Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research