Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Mystery Submarine

 In 1878, an abandoned submarine prototype was found in Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. For many years, researchers thought it was the historic submarine "Pioneer," the one that was designed and built by St. Tammany resident Horace Lawson Hunley for service during the Civil War.

It turned out, however, that the submarine found was not the Pioneer. Long known as the world's first submarine, the Pioneer was rumored to have been scuttled in the Tchefuncte River north of Madisonville. For more information on that story, CLICK HERE.

The 1878 submersible wound up in the possession of the Louisiana Museum, and its story  is quite interesting. Here is the information about it as found on the state museum's website: 

The Mystery Submarine

Soldiers inspect an old Civil War submarine on display in Jackson Square, New Orleans, 1942
The Louisiana State Museum on Jackson Square in New Orleans for many years featured the old "Civil War Era" submarine on display. According to the museum website, "The history of the museum's submarine was traced to 1878 when it was removed from Lake Pontchartrain and placed on the levee by a dredge crew working near the mouth of Bayou St. John. For years after its recovery, the boat lay neglected on the lakeshore. 

"By 1895, it was placed on display at Spanish Fort where it became a prominent landmark. A period of neglect followed, during which the submarine was taken from its wooden stand at the Fort and left lying in the weeds. A remaining propeller blade was removed by vandals and large areas of loss appeared along the lower hull. 

 "Later, in 1908, it was moved to the Camp Nicholls Confederate Home on Bayou St. John. 

The Jackson Square Display
"In 1942, it was acquired by the State Museum and moved to Jackson Square. Some years later the museum transferred it into the lower Pontalba Building, where it was featured in a "Defense Exhibit."
The 1957 Move To The Presbytere

Exhibit Display Drawings

 "It was eventually moved under the Presbytere arcade in 1957 before being transferred to the conservatory in December of 1999. "
The 1999 Move
 "For decades, the vessel's identity had vexed researchers. Many thought the submarine was the Pioneer, the first commissioned Confederate submarine that was constructed in New Orleans by the same group that later built the C.S.S. Hunley - the famed submarine now undergoing conservation at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, S.C. 

"However, a drawing of the Pioneer recently discovered in the National Archives by naval historian Mark Ragan illustrates that the State Museum's submarine and the Pioneer are not the same vessel.
Not The Only One Found

"The history of the Pioneer, however, may shed some light on the identity of the State Museum's submarine. At the beginning of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln ordered a blockade of all Southern ports. 

"To augment his own Navy, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued a proclamation inviting applications for letters of marque to encourage reprisal against Federal ships and property. Respondents were drawn to the Algiers dockyards and to vessels suitable for refitting as privateers.

"Across the river at Leeds foundry, steam gauge manufacturers James McClintock and Baxter Watson constructed a submarine to use against Union gunboats patrolling Lake Pontchartrain. They would eventually partner with Horace L. Hunley, a wealthy lawyer and customs agent, to build a submarine with a menacing, streamlined appearance. After the war, McClintock described the vessel he and his partners christened the Pioneer.

  • "…she was made of iron ¼ inch thick. The boat was of a cigar shape 30 feet long and 4 feet in diameter. This boat demonstrated to us that we could construct a boat that would move at will in any direction desired, and at any distance from the surface. As we were unable to see objects passing under the water, the boat was steered by compass…"
"In March of 1862, the Pioneer's owners were granted a letter of marque by the Confederate government. A month later, New Orleans fell to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron commanded by David Glasgow Farragut. In the ensuing turmoil, the Pioneer was scuttled in the New Basin Canal.

"The ship was quickly discovered in its watery grave and brought to shore. A Federal team of experts was dispatched to examine the "infernal machine" and later submitted their measured drawings to Fleet Engineer William Shock, who completed and forwarded them to Washington, D.C. for further study.
So Was The Pioneer Found In New Orleans?
"In 1865, three years later, Ensign David M. Stauffer of the Mississippi Squadron also made a sketch of the Pioneer. An engineer by trade, Stauffer documented the ships, forts, cannons, and buildings he encountered in the South. The first of two volumes he completed, "Louisiana Sketches," identifies the "Pioneer" resting on the bank of the New Basin Canal.

"The detailed rendering shows how the craft actually appeared (Shock's drawing was a mechanical one). Distinguishing characteristics depicted by Stauffer - iron plating, rivets, conning tower portholes - provide clear evidence of what the Pioneer looked like, and it is not the same vessel owned by the State Museum.
"In the later '50s, civil engineer Louis Genella, in arguing they were not the same boat, speculated that similarities between the Museum's craft and the ironclad Manassas, including structure and plating, point to the same manufacturer.

The ironclad ram Manassas under fire at Forts Jackson and St. Philip, April 24th 1862. Notice the similarity between the hull shape of the Manassas and the Louisiana State Museum submarine. (The Soldier in Our Civil War)"
"Other clues to the mystery exist in letters dating from the period. One, from Fleet Engineer Shock to Gustavas Fox, assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, describes Shock’s experience with the Pioneer but includes anecdotal evidence that may actually relate to another vessel.

  • “Some few weeks since I had some duty calling me to a place down at the ‘New Basin’ where I discovered a Submarine Machine. I embraced the first favorable opportunity and examined it, got is history and had a drawing made of it, a tracing of which I send you as a curiosity.

    The history of the machine seems is simply this, in the early part of Admiral Farragut’s operations here the gunboat New London was a perfect terror to the Rebels in the lake, so it occurred to them if they could get a Machine that would move underwater, they could succeed in securing a Torpedo to the bottom of the ship, move off, touch the wires, and thus terminate their existence. They finally got the thing done, made a good job of it, got it over board and put two men in it; they were smothered to death.”

Since contemporary accounts of the Pioneer never mention such an incident, it is likely the fatalities Shock heard about occurred in a different experimental craft.

Perhaps the most telling document, however, is another letter, also uncovered by Mark Ragan. In June 1861, months before work began on the Pioneer, a New Yorker named E. P. Doer traveled to New Orleans. During his visit, Doer learned from a woman schoolteacher that a submersible to be used against the Mississippi Squadron blockading the river was being constructed. He reported his findings to the Navy in Washington:

  • She tells me that the rebels in New Orleans are constructing an infernal vessel to destroy the Brooklyn, or any vessel blockading the mouth of the Mississippi; from her description, she is to be used as a projectile with a sharp iron or steel pointed prow to perforate the bottom of the vessel and then explode. Says that it is being constructed by competent engineers. I put implicit reliance in the correctness of this information.

If this letter refers to the Museum’s submarine, it would make it the earliest known Civil War-era submersible.

Efforts To Conserve What Is Left 

"At some point, probably in the 1930s, previous custodians of the submarine poured concrete into the hull in a misguided attempt to retain the vessel's overall structure. However, it caused the hull to corrode. Extracting the concrete has been one of the more difficult aspects of the conservation project, but as it was poured over successive, separating layers of sheet metal and wire mesh, the layering effect somewhat facilitated its removal. 

"To date, all of the concrete has been removed from the lower hull. Mechanisms used to control the aft and forward rudders that were formerly hidden have been exposed. Also uncovered were three gear-like objects, each approximately one foot long, embedded in portions of the keel. The remains of a wooden beam running the length of the keel were also found following removal of the concrete. Samples of the wood were sent to the US Forest Products Laboratory for analysis. Unfortunately, the condition of the wood prevented researchers from identifying the species.

"The corrosive effects of the concrete are dramatically visible. Large areas of the rudder shafts have expanded from the high moisture content of the cement. They are encrusted with rust to almost twice their original size. Portions of the keel and hull exhibit similar effects, with the lower hull missing most of its original plating. Stabilization of these areas is now being addressed including reinforcement of fragile areas, and a protective coating applied to all of the artifact's parts.

"Following completion of the conservation process, the State Museum will construct a display mount in which the submarine will be supported for exhibition. Housed in a controlled environment, the submarine will form an integral part of the State Museum's new Baton Rouge branch's exhibits on major events in Louisiana history. Interpretive text and displays will illustrate the vessel's place in the State's maritime and Civil War history.

"The Azby Fund and the Institute for Museum and Library Services awarded grants totaling $84,400 to the Louisiana State Museum for the submarine conservation project."

Source: The State Museum's Civil War Era Submarine

  So apparently there was a flurry of attempts during that time to build the world's first submarine, the ironclad "ram" that would prove useful in naval battles for decades to come. Submarines went on to play pivotal roles in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia. 

And New Orleans was an early hot spot for submarine development, building and testing, with help from its neighbor to the north, St. Tammany.