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'KIND OF A CHILL': Small groups began getting a 20-minute look at the Confederate submarine Saturday, and many described the visit as an emotional experience.

Sunday, October 15, 2000

Of The Post and Courier staff


HDL First tour groups see the Hunley
     For the few who snared the toughest tickets in town, standing by a tank of clear water containing the recovered Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was an emotional experience.
     "It gives you kind of a chill to think about it," said Wayne Poplin of Charleston, who was with his wife, Debbie Poplin, and two friends in the first tour group.
     "It was awesome, very moving. It was smaller than I expected," Debbie Poplin said.
     Tour groups were limited to 30 people and the time beside the Hunley to about 20 minutes. Tickets to enter the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at the former naval base, where the Hunley is being preserved and studied, are even hotter than those for this year's South Carolina-Clemson football game.
     More than 6,000 tickets, at $10 each, were sold via telephone and the Internet, for four weekends of tours. Orders came from as far away as Germany and California.
     Big bucks are being offered for tickets, with some reportedly being offered for auction - bids start at more than five times face value - on the Internet's E-bay site.
     "I received a letter offering $1,000 for a ticket," State Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, said Saturday.
     "All of us on the commission are being besieged with requests to get people into the facility," he said.
     The extraordinary effort needed to get tickets was described by Sherrill Mills of Ladson, among the first to tour.
     "I started at 7:30 in the morning and kept hitting redial till 3:30 in the afternoon to get tickets," she said.
     Mills' daughter, Stacey Mills, a College of Charleston elementary education major, said she was surprised the Hunley looks so different from the way it has been portrayed in movies, illustrations and reproductions.
     Because so much work remains to be done - especially once the Hunley's interior is exposed in about a month - time for tours is limited, McConnell said.
     The senator disclosed some new findings concerning the Hunley, a Confederate secret weapon that in 1864 became the first submarine to sink another vessel in combat. The Hunley and its crew of nine vanished after sinking the Housatonic off Sullivan's Island. The sub was found in 1995, raised and brought to the conservation center in North Charleston in August.
     McConnell said scanning devices have determined the sub is 80 percent filled with silt - which he said raises hopes that artifacts and even human remains may be preserved.
     "It's a treasure trove of history, a coffin and a time capsule," McConnell said.
     He said items inside may include canteens, pistols, photographs, food and perhaps even the gold coin that sub commander Lt. George Dixon is rumored to have carried.
     He said fiber optic probes showed the boat's rivets are tight, that no seams have been broken and there are no separations anywhere in the half-inch-thick iron plates that make up the hull.
     "That submarine is solid," he said.
     The iron has fared well against the harsh undersea environment, with only 1/100th of an inch of iron - about the depth of a scratch - having been lost, he said.
     Apparently the only break in the vessel is in the forward conning tower. A theory that has gained momentum since the sub's recovery is that a Union sailor's bullet fired in an attempt to repel the Hunley's attack shattered a glass viewing port on the conning tower and let water cascade in.
     Researchers still haven't determined the best way to open up the Hunley. "The real sizzle is yet to come," McConnell said.
     For the lucky people who toured there was sizzle enough.
     Wayne Poplin, who wore a Robert E. Lee pin on his collar, recalled the Hunley was legendary to kids growing up in the Lowcountry. "Its always been a point of interest that we talked about in Charleston," he said.
     "It's amazing, first of all, that they found it. It's chilling, just the idea that they knew once they began to sink that they were going to die and they couldn't do anything but sit there. They gave their lives for something they believed in. We should all be so patriotic," Poplin said.
     He said he's always wanted to know what sank the Hunley.
     "That's the mystery. I hope they figure it out in my lifetime," Poplin said.
     Tom Crabtree of Spartanburg, a WSPA TV news anchor, and his wife Gayle, both love history and celebrated their wedding anniversary by coming to see the Hunley.
     "I said to myself, 'Nine brave sailors are still inside there.' It was chilling," Crabtree said.
     "It does resemble the German World War I U-Boat. It was so far ahead of its time. I wonder, what if the Hunley had not only been successful but had come back. And what if the Confederacy had built 50 of them, how different the outcome of the war might have been," Crabtree said.
     Tom Atchison of Charleston also noted the advanced technology the Hunley represented.
     "It's unbelievable to consider that 136 years ago they could have engineered a submarine like that. The thing that's amazing is the size of it, how confined the sailors were, and that nine sailors crowded inside there were the manpower to push the thing," he said.
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