Friday, November 11, 2005


Local search for Civil War submarine causing a stir


By Lawrence Hajna
November 09, 2005

Not since 1861 has the iron cylinder that was the prototype for the U.S. Navy's first combat submarine created such a buzz along the Delaware River.

Officials and volunteers attending a symposium Tuesday could barely contain their enthusiasm over the prospect that the prototype may rest in a marsh along Rancocas Creek in Riverside.

Rear Adm. Jay Cohen, chief of the Navy's Office of Naval Research, called the weekend discovery of a mound in a ditch along the creek by local historians "compelling." He said the Navy will likely coordinate future search efforts.

"Who would have known? This is fantastic; this is exciting stuff," Cohen said during a symposium at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn's Landing.

While the symposium was planned to discuss progress in the search for the USS Alligator, a 47-foot Union submarine that disappeared off North Carolina in 1863, it was the local search for its prototype that had researchers buzzing.

Alice Smith, a Delran resident who has spearheaded the local search, now wants to turn over the groundwork for determining what's under the mound to people with more expertise.

'"I don't think I'm going out again," said Smith, archivist with the Riverside Historical Society. "I would hope at this point, after everything was presented today, that NOAA or the Office of Naval Research would step in and assume leadership."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Office of Naval Research have been coordinating the search for the Alligator.

The Navy has special radar that could penetrate the mud that may cover the prototype, now known as Alligator Jr., Cohen said. Private industry will also be excited to lend equipment, he added.

"We have the ability to network and bring together, if not our equipment, other people's equipment. We'd like to see ourselves as the driver to bring this to fruition," he said.

"My sense is that by next summer we should know whether or not that mound is Alligator Jr."
The discovery of the prototype could provide many insights into how the submarine was built, while turning on students and teachers to history, science and technology, Cohen added.

The prototype created a public sensation in May 1861, when its inventor, Brutus de Villeroi of France, operated it along the Delaware River, possibly as a stunt to convince the Navy to award him a contract to build the actual submarine, designed to remove underwater obstacles.

It's not clear how the prototype got here -- some information suggests de Villeroi brought it over from France -- but records indicate it operated out of Marcus Hook and New Castle, Del., and Rancocas Creek before and just after the outbreak of the Civil War, Smith said.

No one knows what ultimately happened to it, though Smith believes it was abandoned in the marsh.

If it is buried under the mound, resurrecting and preserving it could be a long, painstaking process, Cohen said. He noted that the mud could have preserved the submarine well, protecting it from corrosion caused by oxygen and water.

"If you can keep the oxygen away from the metal, and perhaps the mud did that, then there's a good probability that Alligator Jr. could be found fundamentally intact," Cohen said.

Even as officials began to figure out what to do next, questions about ownership of the craft and protection of the search site began to surface.

The prototype never became the property of the Navy, which by law has the rights to any of its ships that are salvaged. If found, it could become the property of de Villeroi's heirs or the state, officials said.

Smith has had the general area around the site registered with the state as a possible historic area, which she hopes will protect it from scavengers.

Other federal laws may kick in if the submarine is found, said Mike Overfield, team leader for the Alligator search.


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