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Enjoy Key Largo Snorkeling And Diving At The Tonawanda Wreck

The Tonawanda Wreck is just another of the many hapless victims that was crushed on the Florida reefs.

Unfortunately like so many of these vessels, she also enjoyed a very short life span.

She's also in close proximity to other popular Key Largo diving sites which lie ruined on spectacular Elbow Reef.

Elbow reef is a popular scuba diving trip location because of it's varied assortment of coral, and fish.

The fact that this wreck and two other equally interesting ships lie within easy reach makes this one of the better Florida Keys scuba diving sites suitable for the whole family.

History and Sinking
Of The Tonawanda Wreck

Originally named the Arkansas, this steamer was built in 1863 and purchased in June of that year by the Union Navy.

Commissioned September 5, 1863 she served in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron as a tug and transport vessel.

She was majestic and sleek at 191 feet long with a 35 foot beam. Plus her sails were rigged barkentine, which means that her foremast was full or square rigged and her other two masts were schooner rigged, or fore-and-aft rigged.

She was also equipped with an engine providing her with a top speed of 15 knots.

This vessel was military and so she was armed for battle. On board she carried four 32 pound smooth bore cannons, one 12 pound rifle cannon, plus a 20 pound rifle.

During her 3 years with the Navy she sailed under the command of several different officers including Acting Lieutenant David Cate, then Acting Ensign F.H. Beers, then Acting Volunteer Lieutenant John F. Harden. Eventually her command passed back again to Cate.

It was on September 27, 1864, while under Cate's command, that she captured the Confederate vessel, the "Watchful". This enemy ship had a successful history of running Union blockades.

Sadly, barely 8 months after this impressive victory, her commander died. She was then led by two different commanders during her final days with the Navy.

After the war she was decommissioned and on July 20, 1865 a private company purchased her. Her new role as part of their merchant fleet, was to carry passengers and cargo from Boston to Cuba. In honor of her new position, she was renamed Tonawanda.

Barely 9 months later, on March 27, 1866, under the command of John Berry, she foundered on Elbow Reef on her way to Cuba.

Eventually ships came to her rescue, but once it was determined that she would no longer be seaworthy, salvaging attempts began. These efforts continued through April 9, when she was finally abandoned due to storms and high seas.

Since her frame was wood, she quickly succumbed to the affects of water, and today, not much is left of her once beautiful form.

Tonawanda Wreck
Courtesy and LivetoDiveDivetoLive

Elbow Reef, where her remains lie, include the bones of many other vessels. The Tonawanda Wreck, sometimes called the Towanda is oddly often confused with Mike's Wreck, now confirmed as the Hannah M. Bell.

This vessel was made entirely of wood, while Mike's Wreck was made of iron. Mike's Wreck is also located beneath buoy #5, while this one is west of buoy #8, in a dark sandy area.

At-A-Glance Wreck Diving Description
And GPS Coordinates

Wreck Name
Tonawanda - aka The Civil War Wreck - tug and transport, eventually merchant - 191'
Off Key Largo FL at Elbow Reef, and north of the light tower, shoreward of the City of Washington and west of buoy #8
GPS Coordinates
25 08.850N 80.15.462W
20' maximum
40' - 120' - water is very clear
Dive Site Description
Wreck is broken up with remnants scattered over a wide area. A 6' cannon is of interest located about 130' from the wreck. Few remaining pieces of wood are held together by bronze and copper pins and washers
Snorkel Site
Good Key Largo snorkeling site

Marine Life
Abundance of stony and gorgonian coral, crab, green moray eels, grouper, yellowtail, nurse shark, numerous tropical fish including damselfish, angelfish

This is a beautiful wreck site to plan a diving trip out to. The water is shallow so it's very popular for those who plan on a day of Florida Keys snorkeling. The clear blue water, and the abundance of colorful fish and coral make this a very interesting scuba diving site.

Of course exploring the Tonawanda wreck and the reef it lies upon, means you're in very close proximity to the City of Washington and Mike's Wreck. Both of these Florida Keys diving sites are also at shallow depths, so it's definitely a full day of fun for the whole family.

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Local Weather Zip Codes

Key Largo - 33037
Marathon - 33050
Key West - 33040