Commodore Expedition

Beginning in 1999, the Cambrian Foundation was asked by the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association to conduct the first systematic archaeological survey of the SS Commodore. The SS Commodore was a steam tug known for her ability to smuggle guns (filibustering) between the United States and Cuba in the late 1800s during the Spanish-American war. Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, was on board as an undercover correspondent for The New York Press. On December 31, 1896, she set out to sea from Jacksonville, Florida, and sank in heavy seas the following night off the coast of Ponce Inlet. Four survivors, including Crane, were eventually guided safely to shore by the distant light at Mosquito Inlet (now Ponce Inlet), and Crane documented this 30-hour harrowing ordeal in his famed short story, The Open Boat. The 2002 expedition, led by project directors Kate Schmidle Pfeifer and Terrence N. Tysall, marked the first time that high school students were integrated onto our research team. Students from The Fuqua School in Farmville, Virginia, were immersed in an unparalleled interdisciplinary week of hands-on data collection related to maritime archaeology, applied geometry, Caribbean history, physics of mixed gas diving, cartography, American literature, navigation, and oceanography. Students from the Fuqua School joined us again in 2003, and were given the added opportunity to pilot a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) on the wreck as well. Today, the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Museum serves as the conservation facility for recovered artifacts and historical records related to the SS Commodore. Support for this project was provided by Sartek Industries, Dive Rite, Golub Mechanical Contractors, Highland Millworks, OMSPonce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association, Sea Dog Dive Center, Spruce Creek Scuba, Underwater Dynamics, Volusia County Marine Science Center, Volusia County REEF Research Team, Ocean Odyssey Dive Center, Zona’s Coffee House and Creamery, Aloha Motel, and Baxley Ocean Visions, Inc.