Snorkeling into History: Pickles Reef

No gherkins, but lost barrels might have given reef its name

Special to The ReporterSeptember 23, 2011 

One thing makes this small spur and groove reef growing approximately two miles off the coast of Tavernier in the Upper Keys different from every other reef in the system — pickle barrels.

The pickle barrels were not filled with dills or sweet gherkins, but mortar when they spilled overboard after a Civil War-era barge struck the reef. When seawater seeped inside and turned the mortar to cement, the barrels must have sunk like woody bowling balls and while it must have taken years for the wooden staves to rot away, when they did, what they left behind was a concrete pickle barrel monument decorating the sandy Atlantic floor like some hillbilly artificial reef.

The Pickle Barrel Wreck, as the barge is referred, is proclaimed by many to be how the reef earned its name. The disconnect in the reasoning spans a good chunk of time as the words Pickles Reef began to appear in the record books as early as 1828, clearly decades before the first shots of the Civil War were ever fired. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this story is that a cargo of pickle barrels actually sunk at a reef called Pickles Reef. The odds must have been astronomical.

In any case, the Pickle Barrel Wreck was not an isolated case of a captain with a lapse in judgment. In fact, the shallow reef growing in 10 to over 30 feet of water comes with a pretty storied history of shipwrecks. Key West Admiralty Court records identify 23 ships as having struck Pickles Reef between May of 1828 and May of 1911. There have been others — certainly before 1828 and probably after 1911.

Pickles Reef was a regular stop for the Florida wreckers who used to patrol the reef line in search of shipwrecks. The wreckers were, by and large, honest hard working sons of Neptune with a love for the sea and a job to do. They were often the first respondents on the scene of a shipwreck and were, in a manner of speaking, the Coast Guard of their day obligated under their license to save the crew, save the cargo, and save the ship.

They were not the rapscallions that some people believe them to be. Of course, like lawyers and used car salesmen, every industry cultivates the odd bad apple or two. A couple of Pickles Reef shipwrecks in particular reveal the best and worst of what the wreckers were about.

John Jacob Housman, if not the most famous wrecker to ever work the Florida Reef, was certainly the most infamous. When stories of crooked wreckers are told, Housman is usually involved. The brazen 26-year-old first hit the wrecking books in 1825 and worked the Florida Straits until his death in 1841.

After the North Carolina wrecked on Pickles Reef in 1832, Housman did not get involved in the actual salvage of the schooner, but he was part of a consortium of three wrecking captains involved in the operation. The crew, ship, and 366 bales of cotton were salvaged. When it came time to discuss the bill, Captain Housman talked the captain of the North Carolina into forgoing the 90 mile trip to Key West. Rather, he suggested the whole matter be handled through arbitration by an assembly of three men on nearby Indian Key.

There were three approved ways to handle a salvage claim. Terms could be settled at sea, arbitrated back at the dock by an impartial party of three, or heard by Judge Webb in Key West’s Wrecking Court. In the case of the North Carolina, the captain agreed to move the party to the small wrecking community of Indian Key where he enlisted Housman as his business agent, a position that netted Housman five percent of the agreed upon salvage award.

Not only was Housman part of the salvage consortium involving the ship he was representing, but Indian Key was Housman’s private wrecking paradise. Housman owned or had ownership in nearly every building on the 11 acre island and thusly, sway over every man negotiating the fair trade of goods for services.

Like pirates balancing on a fence, the arbitrators awarded themselves 35 percent of the value of the salvaged schooner and its cargo — even if the going rate in Key West was 25 percent.

To maximize their take, the arbitrators undervalued the cotton at $20 per bale. Payment was rendered in the form of 122 bales of cotton, $100 in cash, and an I.O.U for $600. Housman promptly sailed to Charleston and sold 50 of those bales of cotton for $50 each.

It was good he did it when he had the chance because when Judge Webb got wind of the deal, he declared, “that the salvers, by their conduct, have forfeited all claim to compensation, even for services actually rendered.” Housman was made to turn over the remaining cotton bales.

Another incident on Pickles Reef involved Albert Koch, a German immigrant and self-taught paleontologist. Unlike the captain of North Carolina, he experienced the best of what the Florida wreckers had to offer. The self-proclaimed doctor displayed what he could dig up or buy at his St. Louis museum; admission was 50 cents. The man was a little bit Ripley and a little bit P. T. Barnum and in 1845, was digging for fossils in the muddy waters of southwest Alabama’s Sinatbouge Creek. While undoubtedly battling the advances of mosquitoes and alligators, Koch discovered the remains of a monster.

The long-skulled and toothy skeleton was dug up, examined, and identified as Hydrargos sillimani. The bones were packed into several crates, loaded on to the Newark, and shipped from Mobile, Alabama to New York. It proved a bumpy ride fraught with trials. Squally weather was encountered in the Florida Straits and the resulting high winds and heavy, pounding waves pushed the Newark on to Pickles Reef.

During the salvage operation, the crates containing Dr. Koch’s bones were transferred from the Newark to a wrecking vessel. Certainly the ship lurched when one of the crates slipped from a wrecker’s grasp and into the drink. The wrecker tied the loose end of a rope to his vessel, grasped the other end in his tight-fisted hand, and dove overboard — proving that for at least some wreckers, this job was important. The crate was recovered and the entire skeleton was ultimately delivered to New York.

When it came time to assess the claim for the wreckers’ hard work, the salvaged bones were considered by Judge Webb to be of historical and not monetary value. The act of their recovery did not factor into the salvage reward, but fortunately for the wreckers, there had been cotton on board.

The monster was later displayed at New York’s Apollo Saloon where Dr. Koch declared it, “without exception the largest of all fossil skeletons found either in the old or new world. The blood thirsty monarch of the water must have measured 140 feet!”

It was a fraud. Dr. Koch enhanced the skeleton by adding rib bones to lengthen the skeleton until the sea beast measured 114 feet long. The skeleton was actually an early predecessor of the modern whale called a Zeugloden.

These days, aside from the angelfish and occasional loggerhead turtle, two things in particular make Pickles Reef an excellent snorkel. There are, of course, the pickle barrel monuments and the remains of the Pickle Barrel Wreck that rests in 16 feet of water near the easternmost of the three mooring buoys helping to mark the reef.

The other really cool feature is pillar coral. At the northern end of the reef, pillar corals rise from the limestone substrate like, well, behemoth pickles. Perhaps the reason for the reef’s odd and ironic name is that way back in the day maybe sailors used to look down into the water and see what looked like pickles growing up towards the surface and that is the reason the reef came to be known as Pickles Reef.

Brad Bertelli is an author and snorkeling enthusiast living in Tavernier. His book, “Snorkeling Florida: 50 Excellent Sites,” was published by the University Press of Florida in 2008.

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