Blueprint found but sub still lost

Archives: Officials unveiled original plans of the first U.S. Navy submarine, the oar-powered USS Alligator, which sank before it went to war.

Medicine & Science

December 22, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

An American researcher poking through dusty records in the French naval archives has found the original drawings for the U.S. Navy's first submarine - a nearly forgotten oddity of the Civil War called the USS Alligator.

Federal officials unveiled the plans for the oar-powered iron sub last week. They're expected to provide details missing from the few descriptions and crude sketches that survived after the sub sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras in 1863.

"Now that we have the blueprints, we can start doing some of the engineering things we could only approximate before - hull strength, displacement, leak rate, volume of air and how much air people would breathe," said Jim Christley, an Alligator historian and former submariner.

The drawings were unearthed in Paris by Catherine G. Marzin, a French-speaking employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who took time from a family visit to France to learn more about the sub's French designer, Brutus de Villeroi. French naval historians knew nothing about the Alligator, she said, but eventually recalled a box of letters and designs de Villeroi had submitted to the French navy.

"It was very exciting," Marzin said of the find. "It is funny to think the French have had in their archives all the documents we were looking for."

Investigators with NOAA and the Office of Naval Research hope the drawings will aid their search for the Alligator's remains at the bottom of the Atlantic.

This year, midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy were enlisted in the task of determining - 140 years later - where the Alligator went down. It is a daunting challenge, comparable to finding the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, which sank under tow off Cape Hatteras three months before the Alligator. The Monitor was located in 1974; its famous cylindrical gun turret was recovered last year.

The Alligator will be harder to find than the Confederate submarine Hunley, which sank with all hands in Charleston Harbor in 1864 and was raised in 2000. The Navy hopes the work will also help improve its techniques for undersea searches, surveillance and recovery.

"But even if [the Alligator] is never found, it is still a wonderful story," said Michiko Martin, education coordinator for NOAA's marine sanctuaries. "We hope to encourage people to learn more about the oceans."

The Alligator was built during a Civil War arms race, when Union commanders began a desperate search for a technology to defeat Confederate ironclads such as the rebuilt USS Merrimack. The most famous solution was the first Union ironclad, the USS Monitor. The least-known was the Alligator, based on designs that de Villeroi tried for decades to sell to the French navy.

The U.S. Navy brass had one built in Philadelphia for $14,000 - the first sub ever ordered by the Navy - and the 47-foot Alligator was launched in May 1862.

Christley figures the boat could reach a depth of 50 feet. It featured the first air-lock, from which a hard-hat diver could exit breathing compressed air and plant mines on enemy ships. The first shipboard chemical purifier scrubbed the crew's air supply of carbon dioxide, but there was no means of replenishing oxygen.

Unlike the rebel Hunley, which suffocated several crews, no one was asphyxiated aboard the Alligator.

The Alligator's most bizarre feature was its underwater oar-based propulsion system. Up to 18 oarsmen would sit in pairs facing the stern and pull. The oar blades outside the hull were hinged, so they would open during the power stroke, then close on the return, like a duck's foot.

When that proved too slow, Navy refitted the Alligator with a hand-cranked screw propeller, and President Abraham Lincoln reportedly observed the Alligator's first tests in 1863.

The Navy ordered the sub towed to Charleston to join the Union blockade. But it never arrived. Off Cape Hatteras, the sub and its steam-powered tow vessel, the USS Sumpter, encountered what the Sumpter's commander, J. Winchester, described as "a succession of gales and tornadoes."

In five days of battering, two of its crew were lost. When one of the Alligator's tow lines broke and the storm-damaged Sumpter seemed at risk of sinking, the sub was cut loose and forgotten by history.

That appears to be changing. Adm. Jay Cohen, chief of Naval Research and a former submariner, took interest and joined with NOAA 's National Marine Sanctuary Program in 2002 to launch the Alligator Project.

At the Naval Academy, four top midshipmen used the crew's detailed accounts and data on winds, currents and bottom topography to propose a trapezoidal search zone off Hatteras.

Last summer, sonar sweeps by a NOAA research vessel in a small, shallow portion of the search area found nothing, but no one is giving up.

For now, Martin says, "the goal is to generate enthusiasm and support for this, and to encourage others to join the hunt for the Alligator."

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