A daring voyage under the Patapsco Submarine: In 1897, inventor Simon Lake invited journalists to join him aboard the Argonaut for a trip where no one had been before.

Remember When

January 04, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In 1897, when The Sun's city editor scrawled out a memo to a reporter who was about to cover the first public voyage beneath the waters of the Patapsco in inventor Simon Lake's Argonaut, he was direct and to the point:

"If Lake succeeds, give him a column. If he fails, he gets an obit," wrote the editor to the reporter who was about to board Lake's strange Jules Verne-like creation that was part submarine and part tractor.

Lake, a young, red-headed engineer-inventor, became fascinated with the concept of submarines after reading "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" as a child in New Jersey.

He moved to Baltimore in 1888 and established a machine shop on Boston Street, near Aliceanna, with his father.

Waterfront reputation

Known along the Baltimore waterfront for his design of a new type of steering gear for oyster boats, Lake turned his attention to the design of submersibles when he learned that the United States Navy was interested in plans for underwater craft.

Lake's rival, John P. Holland, whose work with submersibles was highly regarded and later accepted by the Navy, was busy building his craft, the Plunger, at a neighboring berth.

Holland's craft was of similar design but more compact, and was equipped with what was called in those days a camera lucida, a primitive periscope consisting of a lens and mirror at the head of a long tube that could be projected high above the boat and swung around at 360 degrees.

Lake's Argonaut, a strange-looking craft, was built at the Columbian Iron Works by the Lake Submarine Co. in Baltimore, and during the summer of 1897 it had been quietly tested off Locust Point, well out of the public eye.

"She is not designed to serve in time of war, although she may be readily transformed into a torpedo boat," reported The Sun.

"What she is after is treasure, golden ducats and Spanish doubloons, buried between the ribs of long-forgotten ships wrecked upon stormy coasts both on this side and the other side of the Atlantic."

By December, Lake was ready for a public excursion and had invited a number of reporters to meet him at Ferry Bar and accompany him for a dip beneath the chilly waves of the Patapsco. A large crowd of curious spectators lined the Ferry Bar pavilion and the railings of Long Bridge.

"Out there in the stream lay the mysterious boat, which all seemed to look upon with awe, or at least great respect," wrote the queasy Sun reporter.

"All that could be seen was a small turret, or conning-tower, with its cover raised, a part of the after works painted red, an outline of the white hull, just awash, and two masts to which flags were attached, one being the stars and stripes, and the other a plain blue field, with the boat's name in white."

First passengers

The Sun reporter was in the first group to board the Argonaut, which was 33 feet long.

Worried by the notion of crawling along the muddy bottom of Baltimore Harbor, nervous reporters asked Lake if the craft was safe.

"Certainly," he replied. "If you have a good heart."

Several reporters, claiming heart trouble, scampered back onto terra firma. Ten stayed, including one woman, as the craft got under way at 5 knots, driven by a 30-horsepower gasoline engine.

On orders from Lake, the voyagers scampered down an iron ladder into the bowels of the Argonaut. They were sequestered in a chamber 25 feet long with "rounding sides, and a ceiling which would bump the head of a 6-footer if he were not careful," observed The Sun.

"The cigar shape of the hull was for the first time evident, and there was a feeling of surprise that there should be so much more of the boat under water than there was to be seen on the surface."

After his guests were seated, Lake slammed down the hatch, entered the chamber and announced that the craft was about to "go down."

"When Lake gave the order, 'Go down,' there was something uncanny in the suggestion. Some of the visitors had a feeling they would like to be out of it if they could, but would try to maintain their composure now that they were well in for it," said the newspaper.

Where's that policy?

"One found oneself arguing with oneself that the boat had already made several trips below and had come up all right and the chances were that she would repeat her successful work on this trip. One tried to remember just where his life insurance policies were and to wish that he had invested in a small accident policy for a day or two.

"Upon all sides were the waves hiding now all the deck from view and inch by inch creeping up. The water climbed until the windows were covered; then the sunlight was cut out and there was nothing about or under or over but water.

" 'Down went McGinty,' exclaimed someone and the others smiled," the reporter wrote, making reference to a then-popular song about a drowning.

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