The oldest existing American battleship, the USS Massachusetts was one of three ships of its kind commissioned by Congress in 1890. Suffering from extremely poor design, it was twice retired and rebooted before being stuck out on Pensacola Bay for target practice. Once it sank, the state of Florida fought to save it, and it is now an underwater archaeological site popular with divers and fishers alike.
Called by journalists and historians “the worst battleship ever made,” and a ship that “attempted too much,” the Massachusetts nevertheless was instrumental in the U.S. victory during the Spanish-American War, though it missed the decisive battle at Santiago de Cuba.
Because of its poor design, the ship had numerous accidents, many of which necessitated extensive repairs and upgrades, the last of which were lethal. It was retired, then re-commissioned, then in 1910 the Secretary of the Navy declared all three ships “worthless and obsolete” and retired them for a second time. The Massachusetts did some work as a cruise ship for sailors, and also attended the coronation of King George in England in 1911. It was briefly recommissioned one last time as a target practice ship—as in something for guns to practice hitting—during World War I, then retired for the third and final time in 1919.
A year later, the battleship was brought down to Pensacola for the Naval base there to practice shooting, and that’s where it is now. Wrecked in only about 30 feet of water, the turrets still crest above the waves at low tide.
The navy tried for years to have the ship’s flag raised for salvage, but by that time it had become a beloved fixture of the area, and the state of Florida fought to keep it.
After being underwater almost a century, the ocean has taken over and the Massachusetts is a full-fledged artificial reef, teeming with life. A popular place for fishers to net bait fish and for divers to explore, it’s also designated as an underwater archeological preserve. Divers can see massive schools of fish intermingling around the wreck. Stingrays, massive Goliath groupers, and several species of shark are among its larger visitors. Schools of dolphins are also known to frequent the area, and their communications can sometimes be heard while underwater.
Know Before You Go
If you plan to dive the Massachusetts, go with a boat captain that knows the area, as the shallow wreck makes it a tricky one to park at. Bring a dive knife to help loose both yourself and any trapped fish you encounter from discarded fishing nets.