City of Washington

Diver swimming in the blue ocean viewing the jagged remains of a ship's iron hull
East of Key Largo, the remains of City of Washington lie on Elbow Reef in 25 feet of water. On July 10, 1917, while being towed by a tug, City of Washington ran aground and was a total loss within minutes. Photo: Bill Goodwin/NOAA


Launched on August 31, 1877, the iron-hulled steamship City of Washington operated in the passenger transport and cargo trade between New York, Cuba, and Mexico. When built, the vessel had two compound steam engines of 2,750 horse-power, with two masts for auxiliary power, as was typical for late 19th century ships. In 1889, City of Washington was refitted with two triple expansion steam engines, which became the norm at the time to replace the much less efficient compound engines.

A black and white photo of a large vessel with black sides and a white top tied to a dock
City of Washington tied to the dock in this early black and white photo. Photo: Steamship Historical Society of America

City of Washington's moment in history came the night of February 15, 1898. Due to deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Spain over the rebellion in Cuba, the USS Maine was moored in Havana Harbor to protect American interests. When USS Maine exploded, City of Washington was close by and suffered damage to its awnings and deck houses from flying debris. The steamship's crew assisted in the rescue of Maine's surviving sailors and treated the wounded onboard their ship. During the resulting Spanish-American War, City of Washington was used as a transport ship carrying troops.

Following the war, the steamship returned to passenger and cargo runs to the Caribbean until its retirement in 1908. Three years later, The Luckenbach Steamship Company purchased the steamship, removed its cabins and steam machinery and converted it into a coal-transporting barge. On July 10, 1917, the tugboat Luckenbach #4 towing the barges City of Washington and Seneca ran aground on Elbow Reef. The tug and Seneca were soon refloated, but City of Washington could not be freed from the reef.


Model of shipwreck created using hundreds of images
Orthomosiac image of the City of Washington shipwreck. Photo: Indiana University

City of Washington's wrecksite extends well beyond its original 300-foot length and 38-foot breadth as the sides of the vessel have collapsed outward. The lower bilge section of the iron hull remains articulated. The vessel's bow is more fragmented than its stern where its propeller shaft tunnel is readily identifiable.

The partial remains of a shipwreck lying on the seafloor
Drive shaft pedestal shrouded with the remains of the shaft tunnel. Photo: NOAA

Interactive 3D Model

The image below activates a 3D model created using multi-image photogrammetry. Click the image to load the model, and then click, hold, and adjust your mouse to view the model from different angles.

The photogrammetric model is composed of 6,301 aligned images collected June 1, 2017 by scientific divers from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Indiana University, and the Boy Scouts of America, with support from a NOAA Preserve America grant. The area modeled is about 3,190 square meters, with an estimated position error of just over 3 cm. Model and texture resolution were reduced for upload.

Photogrammetric model processed by Matthew Maus, Indiana University.

Learn more about Indiana University's partnership with NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in this webstory.

Site Map

Archaeological drawing of the shipwreck
City of Washington Site Map. Credit: Indiana University