Archaeologist Harry Pecorelli working around the ballast pipes, valves, and forward bulkhead.
Surprise Hunley find
Plumbing system provides new clues for solving mystery
BY BRIAN HICKS Of The Post and Courier Staff The final moments of the H.L. Hunley's last crew may be recorded in a complex network of plumbing hidden deep in the Confederate submarine's hull.
Archaeologists are hesitant to label the newly discovered pipes and valves as a bilge pump system, or even characterize it as a potential smoking gun, but the find offers some hope of unraveling the mystery of the Hunley's disappearance Feb. 17, 1864.
"If this turns out to be a bilge system, it is one of the things we thought the Hunley lacked: an ability to remove water from the crew compartment," said Hunley Commission Chairman Glenn McConnell. "How those valves are turned could tell us a lot."
While removing ballast from the sub's floor, scientists found pipelines connecting the submarine's forward and aft ballast tanks and pumps. It appears that the pipes, and a series of valves in them, would have allowed the crew to move water back and forth between the ballast tanks to level the sub and give them a backup pump for each tank.
This would have allowed the crew to equalize more easily the water between the fore and aft ballast tanks and control the submarine's attitude underwater.
Perhaps more significantly, these pipes could have allowed the crew to use the ballast tank pumps to get rid of any water that got into the main crew compartment.
"It would make a lot of sense for them to have a bilge system," said Maria Jacobsen, chief archaeologist on the Hunley project. "You don't have a boat that doesn't leak. There was nothing in the literature about the sub having a bilge system, but we have found these valves that allowed them to isolate the pumps. (Beyond another valve) we found a pipe that dead-ends into the bottom of the sub."
The setting of those valves could tell scientists whether the crew was trying to surface by emptying the ballast tanks or attempting to expel water in their own work area when they died. That would go a long way toward revealing what the men of the Hunley were doing when they sank to the bottom of the Atlantic off Sullivan's Island just hours after sinking the USS Housatonic.
McConnell said there is one more clue that the crew may have been working with the sub's pump just before they died. The crank handles, which seven of the eight men turned to power the sub, are positioned in such a way as to give first officer Joseph Ridgaway the maximum room to operate his pump. The odds of that being coincidental are about 1 in 7.
It will be some time before any answers surface. The valves are covered in a hard concretion, a mix of sand and sediment that has preserved both the submarine and perhaps its greatest secrets. Now, scientists are sifting through the hull, removing organic material and remaining artifacts in anticipation of putting the sub's hull through a conservation process beginning perhaps next year. At some point, McConnell said, scientists may try to X-ray the valves to see whether they provide any answers.
This phase of the Hunley project is leading up to the chemical process that will rehabilitate the hull as much as possible and clean it up for its eventual permanent display. McConnell said he hopes that process can be completed within four years or so. Then the Hunley would be moved to a museum dedicated to it that is planned for the Noisette Project in North Charleston.
This new round of excavation also has turned up a number of tools in the area where captain George E. Dixon would have sat.
Archaeologists have removed an oilcan, iron wedge, hammer and metal rod. A number of wrenches and bolts were found nearby.
Friends of the Hunley Chairman Warren Lasch said the cache of tools lends credence to the long-standing belief that Dixon may have had a hand in building the Hunley.
"Finding these tools by Lieutenant Dixon's station shows that he not only knew how to navigate the submarine but had a deep understanding of how the submarine worked and was actively involved in the ongoing maintenance of his ship," Lasch said.
Very cool story. I've been following the Hunley documentaries that were showing on one of the cable science networks. Thought it make a neat model but Tim beat me to it. How's your model working with the Art Broder ballast system?