USS Massachusetts sheds light on a lesser-known aspect of Florida’s history: The Spanish-American War. The USS Massachusetts was one of the three most powerful heavy-caliber and armored Indiana class vessels of the time, and part of the newly formed United States “Steel Navy.” It was a pre-dreadnaught type battleship, which were built between 1880 and 1905. These ships were built after older and outdated ironclads, but before heavier battleships featuring long-range guns.
William Cramp and Sons of Philadelphia built the USS Massachusetts in 1891. It was 350 feet long (107 m) with a 69-foot (21 m) beam and a draft of 24 feet (7 m). The battleship had almost 10,000 horsepower, allowing it to reach a 15-knot cruising speed. Heavily armed, the Massachusetts carried two 13-inch guns forward and aft and four 8-inch secondary batteries, mounted amidships. The ship also contained four torpedo tubes and a variety of small arms.
Launched in 1893, the ship saw battle during the Spanish-American War in 1898, serving as part of the blockade of Cuba. On May 31 near the port of Santiago, USS Massachusetts, along with battleships Iowa and New Orleans, exchanged fire with Cristóbal Colón, forcing the Spanish cruiser to retire into the inner harbor. USS Massachusetts also ran Reina Mercedes aground before traveling to Puerto Rico in support of the occupation.
After the Spanish-American War, the battleship continued to serve with the North Atlantic Squadron. In 1903, off Culebra, Puerto Rico, target practice resulted in a premature detonation of one of the 8-inch turrets, causing the death of nine sailors. In 1910, the Massachusetts became a training ship for midshipmen. The Navy decommissioned the ship in 1914.
During World War I in 1917, it was recommissioned for naval gunnery crew training before its final decommission in 1919. The War Department scuttled the ship in 1921 off the coast of Pensacola to be used as a target ship for artillery fire. The wreck has been bombarded with railguns and experimental artillery, and divers attempting to remove lead ballast from the gun turrets reportedly dynamited the wreck in the 1950s. Explosions collapsed the upper decks, causing the turrets to tilt inward and dislodge the four 8-inch gun turrets from their mountings.
In 1956, various companies attempted to salvage USS Massachusetts, but Pensacola’s fishing community moved to stop the work; the battleship had become a popular fishing platform. The case against its salvage went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the site ultimately became the property of the State of Florida. In 1990, a Pensacola diver nominated it as the fourth Underwater Archaeological Preserve. The site was dedicated in 1993, on the centennial of its launching. It joined the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
Diving the USS Massachusetts
Despite her shallow depth, the Massachusetts can be an unpredictable and often difficult dive because of her close proximity to Pensacola Pass. This area is subject to strong currents and poor visibility. Plan your dives closely around the tides. Beware that when diving the wreck fisherman have no regards to divers.
Getting to the USS Massachusetts
The USS Massachusetts is a very close dive and is located about 1 mile from the Pensacola Pass in very shallow water. You can use the GPS Location of 30 17.800’N and 87 18.730’W to navigate towards the wreck. When navigating to the wreck be aware that there is a very shallow shoal area on the west side of the pass. When anchoring please be aware that part of the ship may be above the water line.
Marine life seen around the USS Massachusetts
When diving the USS Massachusetts you will see a lot of different marine life, some of them are:
- Goliath Grouper
- Spotted Eagle Ray
- Sting Ray
- Spade Fish
- Sea Turtles
- Nurse Shark
- Bait Fish
- Red Snapper
- Gray Triggerfish
- Spanish Mackerel
- Loggerhead Sea Turtle
- Spotfin Butterflyfish
- Sea Cucumber
- Cocoa Damselfish
There are many other types of marine life that are around the USS Massachusetts, if you want to identify the species you can look at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Saltwater identification page.