1911 Shipwreck Identified Off Florida Coast: What Is The Hannah M. Bell 100-Year Mystery?

By Staff Reporter on December 3, 2012 4:51 PM EST

Mike's Wreck was officially identified as the Hannah M. Bell steamboat that sank off Key Largo in April 4,1911 (Photo: YouTube)
Mike's Wreck was officially identified as the Hannah M. Bell steamboat that sank off Key Largo in April 4,1911 (Photo: YouTube)

Right off Key Largo, Florida, is a well-known underwater shipwreck known as "Mike's Wreck." Discovered and popularized by Mike Butler during the 1980's, the site still attracts numerous tourists seeking a one-of-a-kind diving adventure. However, despite the popularity of the location, the actual identity and the history behind the sunken ship has remained a mystery - until now.

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The race to uncover the truth of "Mike's Wreck" was sparked in 2009 when Matthew Lawrence taught divers from the National Association of Black Scuba Divers on underwater archaeology. There was absolutely no history attached to "Mike's Wreck" whatsoever.

During an interview with ABCNews.com, Lawrence expressed, "I couldn't believe that, with such a large, well-preserved steel steamship, we weren't able to connect the history to the wreck site."

Identified as an old steamship, researchers have only called the site "Mike's Wreck" for ages before finally digging through a century of documents including shipping records, newspapers, to learn more. After three years of research through extensive archives, the mystery has finally been solved. The steamship that met its tragic end is a 315-foot steel-hulled vessel named the Hannah M. Bell, which sank off Key Largo on April 4, 1911.

Archive photo of the steamship Hannah M. Bell, date unknown (Photo: Harold Appleyard)
Archive photo of the steamship Hannah M. Bell, date unknown (Photo: Harold Appleyard)

A tedious process, Lawrence returned to Massachusetts to learn as much as he could about shipwrecks have have accured just six miles off Key Largo. Of the numerous incidents, Lawrence was finally able to narrow down the possibilities to just a handfull of possible ships.

By 2012, Lawrence returned to Key Largo with his findings to investigated "Mike's Wreck" one more time. With the assistance of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, measurements conducted on the ship finally identified the steamboat as Hannah M. Bell. Upon discovery, Lawrence said, "It was a perfect match."

According to Lawrence's research, there are thousands of sunken ships along America's coast. A needle in a hay stack endeavor in terms of identifying the century old remains of a sunken vessel, Lawrence said, "Fishermen probably knew of this wreck and the ones nearby for generations. The rarity is that we were able to ferret out this particular ship's story from history."

So how did the Hannah M. Bell get there? According to records, the old steamboat was travelling towards Vera Cruz, Mexico, with a shipment of Coal. Possibly colliding with Elbow Reef, a narrow strip of shallow reef only six miles out of the mainland, the English-built steam boat finally capsized in an area where other vessels have also sunk.

To learn more, be sure to check out the video of "Mike's Wreck" below:

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