Wednesday, June 10, 2020

A Pirate or a Wrecker?

By Suzanne Norquist

I’d heard of sea captains, and I’d heard of pirates, but a visit to the HistoryMiami Museum introduced me to a new kind of seafarer, a “wrecker.”

A line of shallow coral reefs running parallel to the Florida Keys made them particularly dangerous to navigate. In fact, Key West became rich in the 1850s, primarily due to shipwrecks.

Wreckers performed salvage operations for a share of the cargo. Less dangerous than being a pirate—and legal. In many cases, wreckers performed repairs and helped damaged ships limp to shore. Sometimes they saved complete ships, including cargos, crews, and passengers. Other times they were accused of moving navigational lights to create a wreck or conspiring with crooked ship’s captains for profit.

The following observation by Benjamin B. Strobel in 1830, describes the reputation of a wrecker as compared to their actual appearance. Makes me want to use one as the hero of a story.

“From all that I heard of wreckers, I expected to see a parcel of low, dirty, pirate-looking crafts, officered and manned by a set of black-whiskered fellows, who carried murder in their very looks. I was, however, very agreeably surprised to find their vessels fine large schooners, regular clippers, kept in first-rate order, and that the Captains were jovial, good-humored sons of Neptune, who manifested very disposition to be polite and hospitable, and to afford every facility to persons passing up and down the Reef. The crews were composed of hearty, well-dressed, honest-looking men.”
After Florida became a U.S. Territory in 1821, the federal government passed a complicated set of laws regulating salvage operations. Wreckers were licensed and received a percentage of the salvaged cargo as payment.

The wreckers would usually anchor at night in protected areas and then sail out in the morning to see if any ships had wrecked during the night. Most wreckers performed other work as well. They were spongers, turtlers, fishermen, or something that placed them in a good position when a wreck occurred.

It was while waiting for wrecks that Captain Ben Baker started growing pineapples on Plantation Key and Key Largo, possibly launching the pineapple industry. One wrecking report stated that Captain Baker spotted a wreck while sitting on his front porch on Key Largo.

If a ship ran aground during the night, a dozen wreckers would arrive by the afternoon of the next day. The first wrecking captain to reach a stranded ship became the wreck master in charge of the salvage operation.

A judge determined how to divide the bounty. There was a case where a beer-laden ship was salvaged, and considerable cargo was consumed in the process. The court decreed no additional fees.

Cargos included coal, lumber, tobacco, sugar, and coffee, among other things. One ship carried ice from Boston to New Orleans in May of 1846. It was brought in damaged.

In 1858 there were forty-seven boats and ships licensed as wreckers. The industry dominated the Florida Keys until about 1890. As lighthouses were built and navigational systems improved, fewer ships went aground. Wreckers became a thing of the past, but not without leaving their mark on Florida history.

Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.
She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.

“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
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