First iron plate removed from Hunley's remains

Researchers find signs interior has been preserved

Saturday, February 17, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff


     On the eve of the 137th anniversary of the H.L. Hunley's disappearance, scientists finally unlocked the Confederate submarine.
     The Hunley excavation team on Friday removed a 33-inch wide plate covering the submarine's crew compartment. Inside, they found sediment darkened by a lack of oxygen - a sign that the sub's interior may be remarkably preserved.
     "The last time light shone inside the crew compartment was 137 years ago," Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, said Friday. "The light was let back in today."
     Scientists will remove two more identical plates in the next week or so before beginning an excavation of the crew compartment.
     It was on this day - Feb. 17 - in 1864 that the Hunley left Sullivan's Island for a date with history. A crew of nine left from Breach Inlet shortly before 7 p.m. on a collision course for the blockade ship USS Housatonic. Just before 9 p.m., the Hunley rammed a 90-pound charge into the Housatonic's hull.
     It sank in five minutes.
     But, after signaling a successful mission, the Hunley disappeared.
     For those who commemorate the day, this is a landmark anniversary. This is the Hunley's first Feb. 17 back in port since it disappeared.
     Now scientists are days away from the archaeological excavation of the sub's interior that will finally reveal the mysteries the lost sub took with it to the bottom of the Atlantic in the waning days of the Civil War.
     Today, the Confederate Heritage Trust will host a memorial service for the crews of the Hunley and Housatonic at Breach Inlet at 6 p.m. The service follows a 7-mile march from the Old Village of Mount Pleasant to the inlet, a retracing of the daily walk of the Hunley's final crew.
     Before that, McConnell will judge a Hunley model contest at the Charleston Museum at 11 a.m. Kids from across the Lowcountry have submitted entries.
     Of course, an accurate model is hard to come by, as the folks working at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston have found. Conflicting historical accounts and a lack of contemporary plans have kept the operations of the H.L. Hunley shrouded in secrecy. Since the submarine was raised from the floor of the Atlantic last year, scientists have made new discoveries almost daily.
     Friday morning, scientists learned that their plan for entering the submarine would work fine. The 33-inch wide, 64-inch long plate of 3/8-inch iron was hoisted off the submarine shortly after 11 a.m. That came after the team drilled out the 94 rivets holding it and took out pins holding the plate to expansion strakes down each side of the submarine's hull.
     "I'm very pleased, it went according to plan - no unexpected hitches," project manager Dr. Bob Neyland said.
     The semi-circular plate began to oxidize once out in the air, turning the black iron to a light rust color. Still, the plate is as solid as newly cast iron. Inside the plate, there was some concretion and clay-like sediment. Scientists put protective covering over the plate's deadlights.
     In all, Hunley restoration crew members said, the submarine is much more complex, advanced and well-constructed than anyone could have expected.
     "This vessel was not primitive," McConnell said.
     It is also more than sturdy enough to withstand the removal of three hull plates for excavation. Inside, there is a frame that holds the plates in shape and strengthens the hull.
     Plastic plates were put in place of the hull plate to keep sediment from falling out, although that was not initially a problem. The interior, which was packed with silt and sand, was packed hard. The sediments did not move when the plate was removed. In profile, the sediment got darker as it went down in the hull. Scientist say that likely indicates a lack of oxygen in the crew compartment, which would help preserve artifacts and crew remains.
     Just as today is an important day in Hunley history, Friday was as well. It proved to scientists that they could get into the tiny submarine without hurting it.
     "The old lady gave up some of her secrets today," said Paul Mardikian, the project's senior conservator.



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