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Museum Highlight for June 2001


Scuttled Civil War Era Submarine May Reveal Long-Held Secrets

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Louisiana State Museum administrators inspecting submarine at Jackson Square, c. 1952. Photos courtesy of Louisiana State Museum, (LSM). [LSM Submarine Master File] (Click photo for a larger view)



A Civil War mystery has been on display under an open-air arcade just off tourist-packed Jackson Square in New Orleans for 44 years. Millions of visitors to the Louisiana State Museum's Presbytere have viewed the oddly shaped Civil War-era submarine and pondered its history. With help from an IMLS grant, the museum has put the submarine in a local conservation lab for a three-year treatment to prepare the artifact for a new exhibition in Baton Rouge. At the same time the museum is renewing its search for documentary clues to the submarine's past.

Where was the submarine built? Who owned it? And was it ever operational? While fundamental questions about the submarine's origins linger, what is known about the vessel dates back to its recovery from Lake Pontchartrain in 1878 by a dredge crew working at the mouth of Bayou St. John. The submarine languished on the lakeshore for many years. Then the submarine experienced a brief period of attention when, in 1895, it was on outdoor display at Spanish Fort in New Orleans. But it again soon fell into neglect, losing a propeller blade and portions of its lower hull to vandals and corrosion. From about 1908 to 1942, the submarine was kept at Camp Nicholls Confederate Home on Bayou St. John. The Louisiana State Museum, the final owner of the submarine, placed it on exhibition at various locations but established its most permanent home in 1957 in the Presbytere arcade.

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Man with straw hat standing in front of submarine at Spanish Fort Amusement Park, c. 1895. Notice the remaining propeller blade and bow rudder. Photo by George Francois Mugnier. (LSM C-222) (Click photo for a larger view)


Safekeeping the Ship

Years of neglect left their toll on the submarine. The most immediate and challenging effect, however, was caused by a misguided conservation measure that left the corroding craft filled with concrete to help support it. Once the museum secured funding, which included a Conservation Project Support grant from IMLS, it was able to begin a long-awaited conservation program to remove the concrete, stabilize the structure, and treat the submarine to prevent further deterioration.

A conservation team of metallurgy experts was assembled. Two local experts, Lynn Harrington, an objects conservator, and David Johnson, an industrial corrosion expert with experience treating artifacts, conduct much of the work in a local lab. The third expert on the team is Herb Bump, a conservator with the Florida Department of Archives.

Portions of the submarine's lower hull had completely deteriorated from corrosive elements. Although the submarine had spent years underwater and in the rain and elements, much of the corrosive damage was caused instead by the concrete, said David Johnson, which held moisture in the space between the concrete and the inside of the hull.

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Submarine being transported from the Presbytere arcade to the Euphrosyne Conservation Center, December 1999. (LSM Sub Master File) (Click photo for a larger view)


The first task of the conservators, after the job of moving the two-ton submarine from the arcade to the lab, was to remove the concrete. This had to be done, according to Johnson, in a way that did not disturb “the fabric” of the submarine and that could recover any embedded artifacts or abandoned objects. It needed, in other words, a delicate hand. Yet, the approach was circumscribed by the sheer volume to be removed and the amount of funds available. In the end, said Johnson, “it took a number of months by a number of people, working on their hands and knees.” As they chipped away at the concrete and removed small pieces at a time, first through the hatch and later through the openings in the lower hull, Johnson was reminded of the work of paleontologists.

What the conservators discovered was that the concrete was poured in around layers of sheet metal and wire mesh. This simplified the work of removal. When they reached the bottom of the hull, they uncovered only a few loose pieces. Three long strips of metal-about 3 inches wide and 3 feet long- were nestled in the keel where they were likely used as ballast. Johnson speculates that they may have been old foundry castings.

Continued on Page 2 - click here

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