Receiving Overdue Restoration
becoming a banner year for Civil War submarines.
While the world waits for almost daily updates on the progress of discovery and
preservation on the CSS Hunley, recently recovered from outside Charleston Harbor,
another, much quieter, preservation project is underway at an undisclosed location in New
Orleans on a presumably Confederate submarine that wishes it had had a nice quiet ocean in
which to spend the last 140 years.
The vessel, which has no known name, was found in 1878 by a boy swimming near St. John's
Bayou in Lake Pontchartrain. A dredge operator working nearby hauled it out of the mud and
simply dropped it on the lakeshore where it remained for several years.
The boat has had a varied career since then, including a stint in show business as a
display at an amusement park called Spanish Fort around the turn of the last century. It
was moved in 1909 to a Confederate soldier's home; in 1942 to Jackson Square in New
Orleans; in 1953 to a "Defense Exhibit" in the Pontalba Building, and then in
1957 to a breezeway outside the Louisiana State Museum, on Jackson Square again.
Its permanent home, after restoration is completed, will be the Louisiana History Museum
in Baton Rouge, when it opens in 2003. The museum assembled $83,000 in grants to undertake
the restoration project.
A good deal of restoration is needed, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The
vessel has been subjected to various indignities over the years, from being filled on
apparently three separate occasions with concrete to being spray painted yellow on the
outside. The last misfortune is believed to have been perpetrated by students from nearby
Tulane University at the time the Beatles song "Yellow Submarine" was popular in
the mid 1960s.
Details of the origins and building of the craft are for now almost complete mysteries.
"At this point we don't know anything," said Greg Lambousy, State Museum
curator. "We don't know if it was built here or built in another city and brought
here by rail. It's unlikely that it was designed as a river boat, considering the velocity
of the Mississippi, because of the propulsion system. If you tried to hand-crank a craft
like that upriver, you wouldn't get anywhere. So it may have been meant for the lake.
There were Federal gunboats patrolling Pontchartrain, giving the Confederates a hard time,
and the stillness of the water would have allowed a boat like this to perform."
The ship is described as shaped like a pumpkin seed. Corrosion specialist David L.
Johnson, who with partner Lynn Harrington is working on removing as much rust as possible
while preserving the cast iron underneath, noted that in some ways the boat is even more
sophisticated than the Hunley. Each plate of the hull is in a double-compound curve,
requiring remarkable metallurgical work for the 1860s both to make them and attach them
together to form a watertight hull.
They believe that there were two seats inside which allowed either two or four sailors to
turn a crank attached to a chain drive which turned the propeller. Various holes in the
sides may represent either ports for ballast tanks or later perforations to allow it to be
filled with concrete by later owners. A coffee-can sized pipe attached to the top may have
been connected to a snorkel to allow some breathing air to reach the crew.
No documents relating to the boat's builders, designers, or crew have ever been found. It
is assumed that they were destroyed, and the ship possibly abandoned and scuttled, after
Union forces retook the city of New Orleans unexpectedly in 1862.
One hint was found by Civil War submarine expert Mark Ragan, who also researched the
Hunley. He located a newspaper clipping from 1924 in an Alabama archive that related the
story of Francis J. Wehner, then living in a Confederate soldier's home. He claimed to
have worked on the mystery sub and to have volunteered as a crewman. The headline of the
article said he was "The Last of the Suicide Club."
Johnson and Harrington described the techniques they were using to remove rust and
corrosion, including electrolysis baths, tannic acid wipes and possibly sprays of dry ice
particles. Epoxy and fiberglass may be used for bracing and patching holes. They noted
that the standards of restoration of historic objects call for all such additions to be
both reversible and immediately identifiable to later generations of restorers presumably
armed with more advanced technologies.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CIVILWARALBUM.COM