Susan’s Journey

Have you ever passed by a beautiful old house, a rusty car or a sailboat up on blocks and wondered, ‘What was that thing like when it was new? Who used it, and what did they use it for?’

The staff members of the Florida Merchant Marine Survey must have had that feeling in 1938 or so when they happened upon the dry-rotting remains of the Susan, a 14.7-foot fishing sloop sitting in the sun in a vacant lot in Key West. The point of their survey, designed as a relief work project during the Great Depression, was to compile the history of boats and shipping in Florida and publish a book out of it. The book never came to pass, but the staff still managed to take lots of photos and measurements of historic boats up and down the Florida coast and to trace their histories by talking with locals. They had their work cut out for them with the Susan; her story ended up stretching back more than a century!

Technical Drawings of the Sloop Susan, ca. 1938 (Series 2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Technical Drawings of the Sloop Susan, ca. 1938 (Series S2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

The Susan, which likely started out its life either with a different name or no name, was originally built in the Bahamas in 1830 by a farmer living on Current Island, just northeast of Nassau. According to the information gathered by the Florida Merchant Marine Survey, the boat cost about $150 to build, and was made from a combination of pine and oak, with iron fittings. The builder designed Susan for fishing, but in practice he used the boat to carry home produce from his fields on a neighboring island.

Excerpt from Colton's Map of the West Indies (1855), showing the location of the Bahamas in relation to Florida. The approximate location of Current Island is indicated by the red arrow. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

Excerpt from Colton’s Map of the West Indies (1855), showing the location of the Bahamas in relation to Florida. The approximate location of Current Island is indicated by the red arrow. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

By 1860, the farmer had gotten involved with the pineapple trade, and business was booming. He decided to build himself a larger boat, and he sold the Susan to John Alden, a commercial fisherman in Nassau. Alden operated the boat for 18 years before selling her to a wealthy resident of Nassau named “Tinky” Sturrup, who mainly wanted a vessel to use for exploring the nearby islands.

Deck plan of the Susan drafted by Henry Lechner of the Florida Merchant Marine Survey, circa 1938 (Series 2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

Deck plan of the Susan drafted by Henry Lechner of the Florida Merchant Marine Survey, circa 1938 (Series 2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

A violent storm in 1895 prompted Sturrup to give up pleasure boating, and he sold the vessel to John Francis Pierce, Jr. of Key West for $100. Pierce was a commercial fisherman who had lost two of his own boats in the same storm that shook up Mr. Sturrup. It also appears that the two men may have known each other prior to the sale. John Francis Pierce was born in the Bahamas, and his brother in law was Robert G. Sturrup. It is unclear whether Robert was the “Tinky” who had acquired the boat from John Alden. At any rate, Pierce sailed the boat back to Key West by himself and used it for years to fish for grouper, yellowtail and snapper. It’s also likely that Pierce was the man to actually name the boat Susan. His wife, who was also born in the Bahamas, was named Susan A. Pinder.

During this latter phase of the boat’s life, Susan performed admirably under some tough conditions. A number of strong storms battered Key West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but none managed to seriously damage the sloop, not even the 1909 hurricane that destroyed 400 structures and killed at least 17 people, including men working on Flagler’s Over-the-Sea Railway. As the water began to rise ahead of that storm, Pierce floated the Susan three blocks up Petronia Street near his home and tied her down. When the skies cleared, buildings had been smashed and the streets were filled with debris, but the old sloop was fine to continue its service.

West end of Caroline Street in Key West after the 1909 hurricane.

West end of Caroline Street in Key West after the 1909 hurricane.

John Francis Pierce, Jr. died in 1922, and the 92-year-old Susan passed to his son, Ernest, who continued to use the boat for commercial fishing. The vessel was finally beginning to show its age, however, and in 1925 it was hauled onto shore and stored in a vacant lot, where it remained until the Florida Merchant Marine Survey discovered it in the 1930s.

The Susan is just one of many vessels from all over the state that were carefully documented by the Florida Merchant Marine Survey. The State Archives holds many of the records produced in the process, including short histories, pen and ink sketches, schematic drawings and deck plans, and a partial census of registered boats in service in 1938. Take a look at the collection to see if your Florida county is represented!