Tuesday, September 27, 2005


History Buffs Search for Hulk of Civil War Submarine


September 27, 2005

A cylindrical "monster" made of iron erratically plies the Delaware River between Philadelphia and South Jersey, causing panic in a region gripped by war fever.

Harbor police chase the frightening contraption, running it aground on a small island near Camden. Having "chained" the vessel to a pier, harbor police seize its crew.

The scene could be something out the vivid imagination of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

But it's not. It's May 1861. The Civil War is barely a month old. The contraption is a "diving machine," developed by French inventor Brutus de Villeroi and described in a period newspaper story as "half aquatic, half aerial and wholly incomprehensible."

Nearly 145 years after this strange foray, possibly a publicity stunt by its inventor, a small group of local historians is searching for the submarine, believing the mystery machine may still rest in the muck somewhere along the Rancocas Creek here.

It's now being called Alligator Jr. because it was the smaller prototype of the U.S. Navy's first submarine, the U.S.S. Alligator, the subject of an ongoing search off the coast of North Carolina and a Science Channel documentary that will air Oct. 5.

For a Delran woman, the fate of the prototype is every bit as interesting as the search for the Alligator itself.

"The fact that there was this submarine in our backyard, in our creek, is really hard to believe," said Alice Smith, a 57-year-old archivist with the Riverside Historical Society.

She has spent the past year digging into Alligator Jr.'s past, trying to determine what ever happened to de Villeroi's Delaware River "submarine boat."

The chief scientist for the expedition pursuing the actual Alligator believes Smith may have a better chance finding her sub than he has finding the Alligatorbecause the Rancocas search area is much smaller.

"It sounds promising, very promising," said Michael Overfield of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Alligator Jr.'s discovery would give his team important insights into how the submarine was constructed, especially important if the Alligator is never found, he said.

The prototype was built with a propeller but the first version of the Alligator had an unusual system of oars designed to work underwater that was supposed to increase maneuverability.

But the Navy found this sacrificed speed and the Alligator was refitted with a hand-cranked propeller before it disappeared off North Carolina during a storm.

Little evidence remains of either submarine other than newspaper accounts, letters and some general design plans.

Overfield hopes the discovery of the Union's Alligator will complement the discovery of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley off South Carolina in 1995.

That submarine, pulled up along with the remains of its crew, sank in 1864 during its attack on the Union warship Housatonic; the attack marked the first sinking of a warship by a submarine.

"This ties into the maritime heritage of our country, a piece of our history that has been forgotten," Overfield said of the search for the Alligator.

It was to be President Lincoln's secret weapon; it is believed that Lincoln even observed trial runs.Smith presents a compelling case that its prototype is still somewhere to be found in marshes along the Rancocas. Her case is based on newspaper accounts, letters and interviews of residents who remember playing around rusted debris that could have been de Villeroi's "submarine boat."

"If it's out there, it's probably a heap of rust that would disintegrate if you tried to move it," Smith said.

Aside from the possibility of a search plane equipped with a specialized metal detector, there is little NOAA or the Navy could provide to complement the local effort, Overfield said.

Hand-held metal detectors, small boats and walking -- methods employed by members of the historical society -- are the best search methods for the marshes around the Rancocas, he said.

"I don't think advanced technology is going to help in that environment," he said.

Overfield's team made its third attempt to search for the Alligator off Cape Hatteras earlier this month. The search was cut short after just one day because of the approach of Hurricane Ophelia.

The Alligator left the Philadelphia Navy Yard in June 1862. The Navy pressed de Villeroi to have it available to take part in the famed encounter between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac but the submarine wasn't ready in time.

The Alligator was later deemed too hard to steer to attempt another mission: clearing mines from Virginia's James River, highway to the Confederacy's capital at Richmond.

It was being towed to take part in Union operations against Charleston, S.C., when a bad storm forced the crew of the tow ship to cut the Alligator free. It slid into the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," an area notorious for bad storms and shipwrecks.

At this point, investigators can only make educated guesses as to where it lies. It may have drifted before sinking and coordinates given of where the sub was cut free could be wrong.

Complicating matters even more, the search area straddles the sharp drop-off of the continental shelf, meaning the Alligator could be in shallow water or very deep water.

The NOAA-led team has been scouring an area of 150 square nautical miles located about 30 miles off Ocracoke, N.C.Smith has a much smaller area to search, no more than a few square miles. But she's faced with limited assets and the prospect of not knowing exactly where to look.

She has decided to begin the search on a marshy ditch off the Rancocas in Riverside. It's across from Delanco, which Smith believes served as a base for the crew of the prototype.

At one time the ditch was straight; it now has a bend. Smith believes this is a clue.

"I believe a storm or hurricane dislodged (the submarine) and it blocked the ditch," Smith said. "The water had to find a different way to flow out. It's just a hunch."

But undergrowth was too thick during the first search; an attempt to go up the ditch in a small boat last month was also unsuccessful.

The society plans another walking search in the late fall or early winter, when vegetation dies back.

Riverside resident Bud Eldridge, 61, trapped muskrats, fished, hunted and played along the creek as a boy. He believes the searchers are looking in the wrong place.

He recalls seeing large rusting chains and a rusting pipe with a partially opened lid protruding from the mud about 20 feet from the edge of the creek. That was some 45 years ago.

The site is farther up the creek, near the old railroad bridge that has since been rebuilt to carry the light-rail line across the creek.

Eldridge now believes this pipe and lid could have been the sub's hatch. "It never occurred to me at the time that it could have been a submarine, he said.

Even then the structure was badly rusted. "It would be neat to know that years ago that's what we were playing on. But I can't see how anything would be left of it," he said.

While severe deterioration is a strong possibility, Overvield said, the sub would be well preserved if much of it was resting in the relatively oxygen-free environment of mud.

"There's a good chance it sank into the mud and has been laying there forgotten, like the Alligator has been," he said. "There are pessimists and there are optimists; I prefer to be an optimist."


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